Outgoing Dudamel created ‘solidity, balance of sound’ for LA Phil

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

“Music is energy. You cannot see the music, you cannot touch the music. You only listen, you receive. Music can change completely your life,” says Gustavo Dudamel in this video. Credit: Gustavo Dudamel/YouTube.

LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel has been named New York Philharmonic’s new music director, and he’ll leave for the job in three years. The Venezuelan musician was 26 years old when he came to Los Angeles in 2009, and under his tutelage, the LA orchestra has become one of the best in the country. 

Music critic Alex Ross says that for more than a year, he’s heard that this move was likely to happen, but it’s a step down for Dudamel. 

“The LA Phil is a great orchestra with enormous resources, with a sense of identity and direction and an audience that's eager for experiments. And the New York Philharmonic, while historically a great ensemble, is not quite in that same position.”

However, he acknowledges that Dudamel will have been in LA for 17 years and everyone eventually moves on in their careers. Plus, he’s created a rapport with the East Coast ensemble, and New York is closer to his home in Spain and other conducting position with the Paris Opera.

Ross continues, “​​He had been conducting, on and off, the New York Phil for many years. They've really wanted him. That's the important thing. It has to be a relationship. It can't just be that a few people decide, ‘Oh, conductor X is good for our orchestra.’ There needs to be a strong sense of community, a common ground between the conductor of the orchestra.” 

While Dudamel’s departure marks a major moment for The LA Phil, Ross says the orchestra “were a very mighty force before he came, and they will remain so.” 

Dudamel leaves behind a charismatic legacy, filled with energy that both the musicians and audiences embraced. 

“As a conductor, he is quite meticulous. He's not one to go for really extreme gestures. There's a middle-of-the-road rational way he goes about conducting pieces. He is a superb musician [who] knows exactly what he wants and is able to communicate very crisply and easily to the orchestra — his desires.” 

Plus: “He's also raised the quality of the orchestra over the past 17 years — by the time he leaves. … He has hired, or assisted in the hiring of, excellent musicians across the board. So the orchestra now has a real kind of solidity, balance of sound, and all the different sections: strings, winds and brass. He leaves a real legacy in that respect.” 

However Ross contends that Dudamel’s greatest legacy is fostering musical education for young people, particularly through Youth Orchestra of LA (YOLA). 

“He really has built a new institution and this is going to be very hard to replace. So you have to find someone who is an extremely skilled conductor, who also has this gift for education, for speaking with people, and coming across as someone with whom they can identify.” 

Who could lead the LA Philharmonic next? Finnish Susanna Mälkki is at the top of Ross’ list of frontrunners.

“It’s pretty indisputable that no woman has ever held a position this prominent in the orchestral. … It would be very much in the tradition of the LA Phil to break this bad tradition, and finally have a woman in the top seat. But … there are all kinds of other factors at play.”