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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The future is Latin

By Norman Lebrecht / January 3, 2007

Since this is the time of year to make predictions, let me try and foretell where the next talent wave is coming from. Better still, I’ll stick my neck out and proclaim the future of classical music.

It’s not going to be in western Europe, where the wellsprings have run dry, nor in the US where concert life has lost its groundings in the general culture. Russia has gone stagnant and, while there is a new mass audience growing in Asia, it will take years before the tiger economies generate a stream of commanding performers. So where does that leave? South America.

Every reasonable indicator points to classical music going Latino in the next few years, starting at the top. The two tenors who will take over from Pavarotti and Domingo are, beyond much question, Juan Diego Florez, who is Peruvian, and Rolando Villazon, who comes from Mexico.

Florez, 33, opens next weekend at Covent Garden as Tonio in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, a role last created there by Big Lucy. It’s the one where the hero has to hit nine top Cs in a row, a feat that won Pavarotti his crown as King of the High Cs and first made him a household name around 1970.

With the TV ratings-queen Dawn French stealing his pre-curtain headlines (in the speaking role of Duchess of Crackentorp), Florez gave a little solo warm-up at the Savoy just before Christmas for a few record-label guests. Without so much as a fleck of sweat, he knocked down that row of Cs as if they were ninepins and swept off smilingly to lunch.

Villazon, a year older, presides this month in Paris in Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. Over the past couple of years he has made himself first-choice tenor of the eye-catching Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, with whom he swoons so passionately that that both have been obliged to deny an offstage connection (Villazon is comfortably married-plus-two). Where Florez is a no-frills Italianate top-noter, Villazon is following Domingo in covering the entire span of opera, popping up in any genre from Monteverdi to Wagner. Between them, these Latin tenors have the field to themselves.

The conductor that everyone wants is Venezuelan, and so is his orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel’s debut Beethoven recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra came furnished on a Deutsche Grammophon CD with testimonials from Simon Rattle – ‘the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have come across’ – Claudio Abbado – ‘deeply impressed’ – and Daniel Barenboim – ‘most exciting’. Like all hype, this was hot air-miles over the top and Dudamel’s interpretations of the fifth and seventh symphonies symphony begged more questions than than they yielded resolution. Nevertheless, there was no ignoring his finesse, boldness and energy, or the orchestra’s nerve-end verve and power.

Dudamel, 26 this month, is starting his first mainline job as music director at Gothenburg, in Sweden, where the orchestra is managed by Rattle’s former Birmingham partner, Ed Smith, and the audience is coolly appreciative, tempering any temptations of vanity. By the time he is 30, Dudamel will be the finished object, with the concert world at his feet.

His emergence – eruption, more like it – owes its origins to a remarkable state programme in his oil-rich country which takes kids off the streets and turns them into professional musicians. Dudamel saw many of his own classmates turn to drugs and crime. Three out of four Venezuelans live below the poverty line and the politics are volatile. But as a result of the Fesojiv programme, the country (pop. 22 million) now has 125 youth orchestras, 57 children’s bands and 22 professional symphonic ensembles. Britain, with 60 million, has fewer full-time orchestras and far less music education.

Venezuelan musicians are finding seats in the world’s best orchestras. One graduate of the system, Gabriela Montero, is an international concert pianist. The adult Bolivar Orchestra played in fabulous native colours in the Vienna world premiere of John Adams’ new opera, The Flowering Tree, a couple of months back. The chorus was the Caracas Schola Cantorum, which can act as well as sing. Chatting to some of the players and singers in Vienna, I was struck by the ferocity of their musical commitment and the solidity of their system. Almost all of them earn part of their living teaching in schools and universities, breeding musical continuity. They will return this summer to the Barbican and the Lucerne Festival, strutting the classical summits.

And there’s more just around the corner. America’s most prestigious piano award – not a competition but a career grant by anonymous masters – was given last year to an unknown Argentine, Ingrid Fliter. The last two Gilmore winners were Leif Ove Ansdnes and Piotr Anderszewski. Fliter is 33; all that can be heard of her at present is a live Amsterdam recital on the VAI label where she displays an intimate empathy for early-middle Beethoven sonatas. She is due to play Carnegie Hall in March and make her UK debut at the Wigmore Hall in June. The sensuous Argentine cellist Sol Gabetta debuts in Cardiff next week, Manchester next month.

Some of the fertility can be traced to the Mexican-reared Placido Domingo, whose Operalia contest is an annual showcase for hemispheric singers and to the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich who has quietly nurtured a dozen soloists. Adriel Gomez-Mansur, her latest protégé, has just released a stunning recital on the Belgian avanticlassic label at the tender age of 17.

Beyond such individual initiatives, however, there seems to be a natural groundswell of talent from the region, analogous to the way African footballers, invisible a decade ago, now dominate the European game. South America has yielded the occasional Claudio Arrau and Argerich in the past. Now the sub-continent is in full flood. The future is bright: the future is Latin.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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