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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Can the young blades cut the big stuff?

By Norman Lebrecht / August 1, 2007

The art of conducting will never be the same again. Ever since Los Angeles signed the 26 year-old Gustavo Dudamel as music director in April, orchestras the world over have been looking closely at their maestros’ sell-by dates.

In a mystical art where 80 is considered mature and 60 a mite callow, this amounts to a revolutionary reappraisal. All at once youth fixations of the 21st century have hit the concert podium and, while renewal is long overdue, not all of the newcomers are high voltage – and even the phenomenal Dudamel is a desperately calculated risk.

The knock-on effect of his LA ascension was precipitate. A fortnight ago, with the biggest fanfare it could blow, the New York Philharmonic introduced Alan Gilbert as its next chief. Gilbert is New York’s first American-born conductor since Leonard Bernstein half a century ago and, at 40, the youngest. The Bernstein connection was blown for all it was worth in order to inflate Gilbert’s prestige after the Philharmonic were turned down by its first-choice candidates, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti in an increasingly tortured quest to replace Lorin Maazel who is 77.

Unable to catch a star, they picked a guy who had been hanging around rehearsals since before he could walk, brought along by one or other of his parents who played in the first violins. Alan Gilbert may be Phil friendly but the next Bernstein he is not. Lenny at 40 had worked the world’s best orchestras and had West Side Story in lights on Broadway. Gilbert’s record amounts to seven solid years with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, which is not the best orchestra in Sweden, and 31 guest concerts in New York, none of which produced a eureka moment.

What got him the job was youth – 40 in podium terms is post-pubescent - and insiders suggest that he would not have stood much chance before the Dudamel breakthrough. Whether Gilbert can turn a brilliant orchestra into an interesting one remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that from now on orchestral conductors are, like policemen, going to be looking a whole lot younger.

The pursuit of youth began, surprisingly enough, in Britain where Simon Rattle’s 1980s storm in Birmingham established a culture that is more enterprising than in other musical lands. Over the past three years, orchestras have overwhelmingly opted for glimpsed potential ahead of proven experience.

Liverpool, gearing up to become 2008 city of culture status, hitched its Philharmonic to the Russian Vassily Petrenko, who is 31. Vladimir Jurowski was 29 when he was given the reins at Glyndebourne; now 34, heads the London Philharmonic as well. Ed Gardner at English National Opera is 31, Robin Ticciati at Glyndebourne Touring is a callow 24. Daniel Harding is principal guest of the LSO at 31.

Both of Scotland’s conductors – the Frenchman Stephane Deneve at the national orchestra and the Israeli Ilan Volkov at the BBC – are well short of 40. The Russian Tugan Sokhiev was 24 when he became head of Welsh National Opera and while that stint ended unhappily he has gone on to glory with a French orchestra in Toulouse. Andris Nelsons, 29, head of Latvia’s national opera, is being eyed up by UK bookers.

British musicians argue that the new breed of sticks is innately more gifted than many time-servers in their 50s. How much of this is wishful thinking and how much a reflection of youth trends in other professions from law to medicine is scientifically untested, but the early results are promising. Petrenko has galvanised Liverpool, brushing up a drab, demoralised orchestra to international standard. Both Scottish bands are playing well and Jurowski has added zest to Glyndebourne and the LPO.

Some newcomers, so young they know no fear, are scaling heights that past masters left until they matured. Claudio Abbado spent six months up a mountain when he was 54 studying Mahler’s Ninth before he conducted it for the first time; Ilan Volkov will make his stab at the huge essay on life and death tonight at the Proms, aged 31.

Simon Rattle did not conduct Beethoven before passing 40. Dudamel has already recorded the fifth and seventh symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon with his Venezuelan orchestra of street kids and all sorts. The performances are as dizzying as a dodgem ride on ice, skittery with energy, the structures skewed, the coherence at times elusive, yet irresistible none the less at conclusive moments. To create music of this calibre with kid from the barrios is, of itself, a lesson to mankind.

Their second release, out later this month, is Mahler’s fifth symphony, and its short-comings and rather more disturbing. In the opening bugle calls, notes are held fractionally too long, pauses are distended and the first movement threatens to break down. The second and third movements are convincingly stormy, but the romantic Adagietto is over-cautious and though the finale has an authentic Viennese swagger, the entirety is unconvincing. Dudamel, as he readily admits, has much to learn.

The potential, though, is uncontested. ‘An talent like Dudamel comes around very seldom,’ one of America’s top concertmasters tells me privately. ‘I, in my 40 years of playing in different orchestras, have never seen anybody like him.’

Ed Smith, who hired Dudamel for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, compares him to Rattle’s at the same age, when Smith was Rattle’s manager in Birmingham. Rattle himself, along with Abbado and Barenboim, sing Dudamel’s praises – not so much to advance his career as to board his bandwagon. Dudamel has burst the age dam and is leading a pack of lion cubs into the breach.

We’re in for turbulent times in concert life, which can only be welcomed after an era of caution. But we’d be foolish to load the newcomers with an excess of expectation. Not all of them will make the grade and many of their concerts will apply sheer speed to cover for interpretative superficiality. Dudamel and the young blades have much to do before they can deliver a depth charge in Beethoven and Mahler.

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


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