It must have been six years ago that a friend of mine who works at the Kennedy Center notified me about a public afternoon rehearsal by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for only $15. I went in not knowing if this was a rehearsal or a performance - not speaking Spanish, and too far away from the stage to hear anything anyway.
The truth was that they barely needed rehearsal. It was basically a more affordable public performance made available so that a small but sizable chunk DC's Latino population could afford to attend. I was one of the only white person in attendance. But regardless of the audience, I had never heard an orchestra quite like this. It wasn't simply the sheer barrage of sound, it was the weight. The bass instruments of the orchestra were so resonant that they seemed to emerge from the bowels of the earth. The string sound wasn't simply beautiful (how could it be in the Rite of Spring) or passionate, it seemed to come at you in waves. Percussion played at full blast, but they did not simply dominate, they seemed perfectly shaped. As with all the great conductors, it was a kind of alchemy. Nobody really knows what a great conductor does that separates him from a merely very good one, but you instantly know a great conductor when you hear what he can draw from an orchestra. But then, there is a level past the merely great, the transcendent conductors whose performances bring us to a primal level of artistic mystery. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were clearly great conductors of the early 20th century who could move audiences to tears and awe, but neither was capable of providing the out-of-body experiences which one gets in the performances of Wilhelm Furtwangler. There were great conductors of the late-20th century like Carlo Maria Giulini and Rudolf Kempe, but neither of them could make time itself stop the way Leonard Bernstein did. Our own time is filled with great conductors like Ivan Fischer and Riccardo Chailly, and great Russian-trained conductors like Mariss Jansons and the elderly but still great Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, but intelligent and moving as their performances can be, none of those four can electrify in the way Valery Gergiev can.
There is something primal and sub-intellectual about such musicians that rubs many music-lovers the wrong way: Furtwangler, Bernstein, Gergiev, but also Willem Mengelberg, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Albert Coates, Charles Munch, Victor De Sabata, Nikolai Golovanov, Hermann Scherchen, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Georg Solti, (young) Sergiu Celibidache, Rafael Kubelik, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Yuri Temirkanov, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Tilson Thomas, Rene Jacobs, Simon Rattle, Manfred Honeck, Marc Minkowski, Teodor Currentzis, Andris Nelsons, Gustavo Dudamel. In each case, there is something about their approaches which some music lovers simply find too exciting. There are inevitably accusations of shallowness, vulgarity, narcissism, and pandering. It's very difficult to believe today that musicians as intelligent as Bernstein and Furtwangler were accused of shallowness, but for most of their careers, they were accused of such things all the time. What these musical Beckmessers never understood was that their intelligence was at the service of their musical instincts, which inevitably led them to places the intellect would never fathom - sudden speedups and slowdowns, held notes, impossibly fast or slow tempos, exaggerated dynamics, wholesale reorchestration. The public, even the intelligensia, thrilled to their approaches. The only people who truly disapproved were the musical elite of their days, who inevitably found fault because they spent too much time with music and not enough time in the wider world. Their very musical intelligence works against them, and their ascetic heads become scandalized by the vulgarity they hear that would otherwise thrill their hearts. Perhaps these accusations are sometimes earned, but even if they are, are these accusations earned so often as they're leveled? This is the price paid in performance by any performer willing to dare everything. Once upon a time, such accusations of vulgarity and shallowness and narcissism were leveled upon the conducting of personages as august as Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.
Occasionally, a conductor comes along who manages to make something so exciting within an acceptable intellectual framework, and when such a figure as Arturo Toscanini or Carlos Kleiber comes along, the approval they earn is absolutely universal. Later generations learn from their examples, and the music scene became/becomes inundated with a profusion of mini-Toscaninis and mini-Kleibers. In the wake of Carlos Kleiber, we have so many conductors, some truly great, who are so clearly influenced by him - the podium manner almost synonymous with interpretive dance, the fleet tempos, the rubatos so subtle that they're almost not rubato, the micro-managing way they shape phrases, the ear for every possible nuance and detail: Ivan Fischer, Manfred Honeck, Franz Welser-Most, Paavo Jarvi, Markus Stenz, Teodor Currentzis, Vladimir Jurowski, Kirill Petrenko, Daniel Harding, Andris Nelsons... If a conductor has to take a model from which to derive their style, Carlos Kleiber is as good of one as you'll get. The problem such an approach is that it inhibits their ability to become their own original musical personalities. Some, like Nelsons and Honeck and Stenz (and Currentzis on another level entirely), can make their own ideas shine through an approach that is in some senses derivative. Others, like Harding and Welser-Most and K. Petrenko, elicit extraordinary playing, but sometimes seem to interpret music in a manner that can almost be generic.
And because Dudamel is so different from an interpreter who interprets with urbane, Kleiberian, sophistication, there will always be a kind of criticism against him that carries a sour aftertaste of classism and xenophobia. A proper European musician of 2016 would be mining the score for every implied meaning, not wringing the music dry for every expressive drop.
Dudamel is a musician less concerned with nuance than sweep. He does not approach large-scale works like the Mahler Symphony no. 3 I heard on Sunday in New York with the nuance of chamber music, the way Claudio Abbado would. He approaches such an enormous work as the enormous public statement it is meant so clearly to be. There was certainly nuance in this performance, anyone who heard the light second movement of that Mahler 3 would marvel at , as they would the beautifully muted string playing at the beginning of the final Adagio. However, subtlety is not Dudamel's primary aim, because his primary aim is so clearly vividness of experience. The same unbelievable Dudamel sound which I heard in DC six years ago from those Caracas musicians was present when I heard him in New York from the other orchestra he currently directs, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The solar plexus fortissimo at the end of the trombone solo near the work's beginning, the braying horns and blaring yet perfectly balanced brass in first movement's parade music, the awe-inspiring storm music at the two-thirds point through the first movement, absolute E-Flat minor shock at the end of the scherzo, the profoundly moving explosion of E-flat major joy two-thirds of the way through the final Adagio. These were experiences utterly unavailable in the performances of more intellectually minded Mahlerians concerned with good taste and coherence like Abbado and Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez. And yet the vividness comes through completely at the other end of the dynamic spectrum too: the magically distant posthorn solo in the scherzo, the unbelievable lightness and detail he elicited all throughout the second movement (which demonstrated once and for all that he can Kleiber with the best of them), the incredibly moving string playing at the beginning of the Adagio.
These were all expressions of an utterly original musical personality. Like so many original musical personalities, he occasionally does things that are inexplicable except to musical instincts that are occasionally as fallible as all of ours are, but music is not an intellectual experience. Music is so much deeper than intellect. Those who demand intellectual coherence from their music are turning themselves deaf to the power of the unbridled musical imagination. They do not trust anything too exciting, too primal, too visceral.
(His Mahler 3 ten years ago, it's grown since then. Broader tempos, ruder sounds, but all the same excitement.)
Perhaps the reason for this is that music is not a revelation for them, but a refuge. In their minds, music is not a place to embrace life, but to turn away from it. To approve of music-making that is too exciting is to invite the larger world in, a world in which they would be just one voice among many. Music-making capable of challenging both the cognoscenti and the masses requires something more than intellectual coherence, it requires the imagination unbound by coherence. In such music-making, loudness must be louder, softness must be softer, tempos must be faster and slower and more flexible, phrasing surprising. It demands interpretation in which the unexpected, the surprise, the vivid, is the rule and which predictability is the exception. Music-making which puts us squarely in touch with the mysterium tremendum is far too transcendent an experience to be bound by intellectual strictures. Whether these cognoscenti follow the intellectual diktats of Cage or Hogwood, Boulez or Celibidache, Adorno or Scruton, music is inevitably (and ineffably) larger than their imaginings. You can try placing music in a straightjacket of interpretive good taste, which Toscanini and Kleiber did, Reiner and Szell, Karajan and Leinsdorf, Haitink and Abbado, Gardiner and Christie. But music is larger than these conductors made it, it follows no coherent rule of thought - it exists before thought and after it. To place music in the realm of coherence is to close oneself off from the possibilities of what music can be. An artist like Dudamel, and those like him, are a living rebuke to everything for which they stand. Such people will always be with us, and if one doesn't stand up to them, they will ensure that the truly original among us appear less frequently.