In Conductors, What You See Is Not What You Get


People hear what they see. It’s always been true to some extent, but it’s the case to a greater degree today than any other time I can remember, and I suspect this is largely what the Gustavo Dudamel phenomenon is about.

A lot of listeners I talk to reveal that they’re not listeners at all. They talk about how much fun he is to watch, his energy, his smile.

It’s important to know why you’re responding to a conductor, especially at a time when so much is riding on it.

In Philadelphia, what’s riding on it is a music director search in which the orchestra has no publicly stated criteria. Are we looking for the best musician, or the most magnetic poster boy? (Sorry, they’re all boys.)

In New York, it means getting to know a new music director whose big problem, in the words of one woman quoted in a Los Angeles Time piece, is that he’s just not the Dude.

“We live half the year in San Diego, and Alan Gilbert just doesn't have that Dudamel spark,” she told the paper.

No, I’m not anti-Dudamel. He’s probably good for classical music. He’s talented, promising, charismatic (see for yourself at the Kimmel in May) and has a great personal story to tell. How much musical substance he has isn’t clear yet. And whether he’ll be the Messiah, earned-revenue-wise, that everyone expects him to be remains to be seen. Subscription ticket sales for his first season in Los Angeles are down seven percent from last year despite heavy marketing dollars and a public relations dazzle (see Vogue) rare in classical music.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s next music director is likely somewhere on the roster for the season that opens in three weeks. Will the orchestra’s board chase the Dudamel formula and engage someone who looks great on the podium? Or will the board make music (revelatory interpretation, unity of ensemble, cultivation of sound) the sole criterion?

That it’s even a question is the most stunning marker of institutional change this orchestra has seen in decades. The outcome will declare whether the Philadelphia Orchestra will continue to aspire to be one in a handful of the world’s top orchestras, something less, or at least something else.