October 20, 2018

Up-and-comer Dudamel takes on the Israel Philharmonic

Los Angeles Philharmonic music-director-designate Gustavo Dudamel is coming to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Nov. 24, but not as might be expected. He will lead the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as it celebrates the 90th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence.

That’s a lot of history — musical and political — for any young conductor to handle. But Dudamel, who will be 28 when he replaces Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic next year, considers Bernstein a role model.

“Bernstein was an inspiration,” the Venezuela-born conductor said, speaking by phone from New York. “He was a complete artist — a wonderful composer and teacher, an amazing philosopher and conductor. He was a perfect combination, an inspiration for all my generation.”

When Dudamel made his New York Philharmonic debut last November, he used Bernstein’s baton, loaned to him by Barbara Haws, the orchestra’s archivist and historian.

“I told him he had to give it back after each concert,” she said. “Gustavo agreed, but many conductors assume it’s theirs to keep.”

About five bars from the end of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, the baton broke into pieces. An article appeared in The New York Times the next day, “A Tough Night for a Bernstein Baton.”

“It broke — sor-ry! — I’m so ashamed about this,” Dudamel laughed. “But it was great, the opportunity to hold this very old baton. It was something magic, because it happened in the last few seconds of the symphony, after the last concert. It was so amazing. Lenny was there, I think. It was the energy of him.”

Haws didn’t want to fix the baton. It’s now tied together with string, a note attached. “There are other Bernstein batons in the world,” she said, “but only one used by Dudamel.”

Haws said Dudamel, who is being compared to Bernstein, is “the real thing. A great communicator, and that’s what Bernstein was all about.” (The late maestro also broke his share of batons.)

Dudamel shares Bernstein’s high-energy style of conducting. But Haws was most impressed when Dudamel came to the archive and pored over Bernstein’s scores. “Rarely do conductors do that before they conduct the New York Philharmonic,” she said.

But can a young and still largely untried conductor win over the Israel Philharmonic, with its long Bernstein tradition?

“We love Gustavo,” said Peter Marck, the IPO’s principal double bass since 1976. “But we love him on his own, not because he reminds us of somebody. We love him because he’s young and inexperienced. He’s full of energy, and there’s this kind of pure musicianship coming from him. He’s also very confident about things, which makes our life easier.”

The Israel Philharmonic, these days largely comprised of virtuosos, has a reputation for not being easy on conductors. “You do need a strong personality at the front,” Marck said. “We’re kind of idiomatic in the way that we play. We have our own dialect. There are very few orchestras that play Brahms the way we do.”

Dudamel agrees with Marck that the IPO’s energy comes from “a lot of passions together. This sound that is impossible to stop. They are like an earthquake orchestra.”

Two Bernstein pieces — “Halil,” a concerto dedicated to a young flutist killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and “Jubilee Games,” written for the IPO — along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, will be performed in San Diego’s Civic Auditorium on Nov. 22, and at Walt Disney Concert Hall two days later. The IPO’s Nov. 23 concert in Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall features Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.

“They are wonderful pieces. Not famous, but beautiful,” Dudamel said of the Bernstein works.

Marck said they also have special meaning for the IPO. He recalled Dudamel suddenly reminding orchestra members that they should be proud that Bernstein composed “Jubilee Games” for them. “When I heard him say that, it was kind of, ‘Wow.’ He’s reminding us. I mean, had we forgotten so quickly? When I play it today, it’s really about the Israel Philharmonic. It’s our concerto for orchestra.”

Marck recalls Bernstein’s visits as “a taste of the big world. There’s a big difference conducting a city orchestra, like in New York or Los Angeles, and being the conductor of a country. He was Israel’s conductor.”

Thinking about the late composer-conductor, who died in 1990, when Dudamel was just 9 years old, the rising star became philosophical: “I’m very sad I never met him, but I think he’s always with us. With each moment of his music, we have Lenny always living in us.”

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.