Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Gustavo Dudamel and new music (Part One of an ongoing series)

John Adams and Gustavo Dudamel on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall

“Gustavo Dudamel — new music conductor.”  Or perhaps, “Gustavo Dudamel — new music proponent.”


The young maestro is not necessarily known for conducting new music as much as others such as David Robertson or Kent Nagano, and he certainly does not have the reputation or gravitas that Esa-Pekka Salonen brings when conducting “new” or “newer” music.  Mr. Dudamel’s own PR machine and the press coverage that springs from it are much more likely to discuss his El Sistema roots and continued commitment to youth orchestras than they are to mention premieres he has conducted.

Despite all of this perception and talk, what is the reality?  How does Mr. Dudamel actually compare to other conductors, including his predecessor as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic?  There are many ways to look at this, and I’ll do my best to hit as many of them as possible over the course of multiple posts.

Based on points brought up during the  discussion that resulted from my last post, let’s start with the number of works conductors program with their own orchestra during the upcoming 2011-12 season.  For purposes of this discussion, we’ll call anything composed in the past 40 years as “new music.”  Here’s what I discovered:

Gustavo Dudamel is conducting more “new music”  this coming season — eleven works — with his primary orchestra than any other “Music Director” or “Principal Conductor” of any orchestra in North America, not to mention a couple in Europe too.  It stacks up like this:

  • Gustavo Dudamel (LA Phil) = 11
  •  Alan Gilbert (NY Phil) = 10
  • Michael Tilson-Thomas (San Francisco) = 10
  • David Robertson (St. Louis) = 8 (only 3 other programs without:  All Stravinsky, Bach B-minor Mass, Rachmaninoff/Ravel/Prokofiev)
  • Kent Nagano (Montreal) =  7  (plus Turangalila)
  • Marin Alsop (Baltimore) = 6
  • Simon Rattle (Berlin) = 5
  • Christoph Eschenbach (National – DC) = 5 (plus Turangalila)
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen (Philharmonia) = 3 (plus “The Prisoner” by Dallapiccola)
  • Franz Welser-Most (Cleveland) = 3
  • Jaap van Zweden (Dallas) = 2
  • Manfred Honeck (Pittsburgh) =2 (plus Goosens’ Concerto piece for 2 harps, oboe, and orchestra – 1958)
  • Riccardo Muti (Chicago) =  2 (plus “The Leopard” by Nino Rota 1963)
  • Charles Dutoit & Yannick Nezet-Seguin (combined) (Philadelphia) = 1
The numbers above only include programs, not individual concerts (e.g. if you play a Steven Stucky piece 3 times over the course of the weekend, it only counts once, and it doesn’t).  I included so-called “new music concerts” if those concerts were played by the “home” orchestra and not some visiting ensemble; as it turned out, the only two for whom that rule applied were the LA Phil (Green Umbrella) and NY Phil (Contact!).  I did not include concerts played on tour.  Notably missing from the list are the Boston Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony; since they are currently without Music Directors, I did not include them.
Some quick thoughts from these numbers:
  • I’m surprised that MTT & SFS weren’t at the top of the list given that they have a lot of new works commissioned as part of their 100th Anniversary session.  If you remove the Green Umbrella concerts from Mr. Dudamel’s tally and the Contact! concerts from Mr. Gilbert, they would be at the top.
  • I’m absolutely shocked that Salonen’s numbers with the Philharmonia are so low.  He’s taking his own Violin Concerto on the road with a number of orchestras, but much of his effort in London this season is devoted to Bartok.
  • Special notice must be paid to David Robertson:  more than 75% of his programs with the SLSO include new music, and only one concert is devoid of any music from the 20th or 21st Century.
I am not ready to declare Mr. Dudamel a bona fide new music guru just yet, but given that this will be the fifth full season since he was announced as Music Director and third season actually serving in that capacity, I think it is quite fair to say that this season represents his own ideas with regards to new music and he is clearly conducting a lot of it.
Of course, there are many more ways to skin this proverbial cat.  Next, we’ll make a head-to-head comparison of the LA Phil under Mr. Dudamel vs. Mr. Salonen.


Photo credit:  Martin Chalifour

5 thoughts on “Gustavo Dudamel and new music (Part One of an ongoing series)

  1. I’m always fascinated when numbers are put on offer as proof of something. Certainly they have their place, but from my own statistical training, it is equally true that they can be as manipulative and misleading as just about anything one can say in words. The exercise above, as you allude to yourself, is already misleading in that it doesn’t take into account a number of confounding variables such as how many programs of new music are being led as a percentage of the total conducted. I would also argue that repeated performances should count – doesn’t a token one-off represent something less than a subscription concert given several times to a larger and less self-selected audience? How about number of people the orchestra plays for? Isn’t a conductor doing more for “new” music bringing it to a larger audience, on tour or not, than a small one? And this doesn’t even begin to touch on this arbitrary definition of “new”. How about length of the piece? Do four late 20th Century fanfares equal the importance or risk of programming the Turangalila (which as you note isn’t included in the above definition of “new”.)

    Perhaps more problematic is this – “I think it is quite fair to say that this season represents his own ideas with regards to new music and he is clearly conducting a lot of it.” I don’t see how this follows from anything in your piece. Certainly Dudamel had a hand in the season programming. But how do we know he personally was invested in everything he is conducting. As you yourself have noted previously, he has deferred to the wishes of the LA Phil administration in the past on these issues as do all music directors I wager. And I continue to believe it would not be politic to refuse to conduct any “new” music for an orchestra that has made its reputation on it.

    Finally, all of this says nothing about the intangible aspects of advocating for “new” music. How much time does Dudamel or any of the mentioned conductors actually spend talking to audiences about why these works are important or how they relate to what has come before or after in music? Dudamel has stuck his neck out very little for “new” music so far. The projects nearest and dearest to his heart have been just as likely to be about reiterating the standard rep (the Mahler cycle, the operas he’s chosen), as not (the less familiar Latin works he’s led.)


  2. Brian, as always, I welcome your thoughts.

    First and foremost, there is nothing misleading — explicit, intended, or implied — about the information presented. In fact, I was as transparent as possible so that people can draw their own conclusions, as you did yourself. As I mentioned in the post, this is merely the first of a few different analyses, both quantitative and qualitative, that I’m going to do on the topic, so some of the points you made will be addressed in future posts in a more thorough manner than I can right now. That said, let me touch on a couple points from your comments:

    – “Repeated performances should count.” Sure. If you want to look at it that way, then things skew towards the bigger orchestras (LA Phil, NY Phil, SFS) and their respective MD’s since they typically play three or four concerts per program. Conversely, the Robertson/SLSO numbers would look less impressive: of the eight programs which I counted for them, seven are presented only twice and the eighth is only played once.

    – How about number of people the orchestra plays for?” . . . “How about length of the piece? Do four late 20th Century fanfares equal the importance or risk of programming the Turangalila (which as you note isn’t included in the above definition of “new”.)”
    So, to summarize, you’re looking for a metric that somehow gets at the quantity of new music played and the number of people who hear it . . . I am fine with that. Give me a day or two, and I’ll calculate the following ratio: “total minutes of new music played / number of people who heard it being played”

    You’ve previously said that you don’t consider Bernstein “new music,” a point of view with which I don’t necessarily disagree. Yet his Symphony No. 2 was written the same year as Turangalila, and the vast majority of what he composed for orchestra came after that. If Bernstein’s music isn’t new, Turangalila doesn’t count as new either. If it does count, well then let’s both be sure to count all of it against Dudamel’s tally of new music pieces conducted in past seasons.

    BTW: Your comment about “importance or risk of programming” is an entirely different discussion than the “newness” of the programming. This was never intended to be a post (or series of posts) about anything except “new music.”

    – “But how do we know he personally was invested in everything he is conducting.” We don’t. Unless you or I have sat with Mr. Dudamel, Ms. Borda, and Mr. Smith during their programming discussions or asked any of them the question, we simply are guessing and inferring, and clearly our inferences our different.

    – “As you yourself have noted previously, he has deferred to the wishes of the LA Phil administration in the past on these issues as do all music directors I wager.” Glad you brought that up again: the interesting thing in that particular example is that Mr. Dudamel was arguing FOR new music programming and it was the administrators pushing against it. If you believe that this is a representative example (and I’m guessing that you have no evidence to the contrary), it stands to reason that Dudamel would actually be conducting even MORE new music, not less, but the administration is holding him back.


  3. Pingback: Gustavo Dudamel and new music: some comparisons to Salonen (Part Two of an ongoing series) « All is Yar

  4. Pingback: Muti on conducting new music and conducting in general; reviews from CSO’s concerts in SF « All is Yar

  5. I agree that we have no way to know whether the push for new music programming is coming from Dudamel or the administration, but regardless, I think it’s a great example of how a strong vision can create an institutional legacy. Salonen made new music such a visible part of the LA Phil brand that either the administration is putting pressure on Dudamel to maintain that brand, or Dudamel understands that this is part of his job at this orchestra, and is running with the baton on his own, using the appointment as an opportunity to move beyond his comfort zone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.