Gustavo Dudamel signs on to conduct LA Philharmonic until 2022
Music director's contract extension proves his commitment to the orchestra
The Los Angeles Philharmonic arrived in Tokyo last week needing its spirits lifted. The flight from Seoul, the last leg of an Asia tour that began in Hong Kong a week earlier (the troupe was in town for the Arts Festival last month), was delayed. The bus ride from Narita airport to their Tokyo hotel meant a couple of more lost hours in traffic.
But an unexpected uplift, courtesy of Gustavo Dudamel, came quickly. The orchestra's music director threw a little reception party, where he plied the players with champagne and good news: he was extending his contract three more years to 2022.
That means Dudamel, now in his sixth season, will spend at least 13 years with the LA Phil.
The extension gives the orchestra star power and stability at a time when many symphonies are struggling with finances and trying to reach new audiences. Dudamel's vibrancy and Venezuelan roots have made him an ideal fit for a city open to innovative programming with a bit of flash.
The deal reverberated across the classical music world. It came amid talk that Dudamel might have been sought to replace Alan Gilbert, due to step down in 2017 as music director of the New York Philharmonic. There had also been speculation about Dudamel as a successor to Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, which many consider the world's best orchestra.
"Sometimes when you make big decisions," he told the orchestra the next afternoon at a rehearsal in Suntory Hall before a performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony, "you are not sure later that you did the right thing. But I woke up yesterday and today very happy."
That evening, the orchestra gave the most fully realised, most sonically shattering, most overtly passionate Mahler performance it has yet played with Dudamel. The Japanese audience erupted into such unrestrained and prolonged applause that some musicians took out cellphones and snapped photos of one another.
It takes an unusually satisfied orchestra to take selfies on stage in Tokyo.
Tea-leaf readers want to know what it means now that Dudamel's continued commitment to Los Angeles has been revealed. Did he want to stop the speculation that the Berlin Philharmonic or New York Philharmonic were headhunting him? Was it related to the recent news of his pending divorce? (The Venezuelan couple filed for divorce early last month after nine years together. His wife, Eloisa Maturen, is asking for joint legal custody of their three-year-old son and spousal support from Dudamel.)
Was he perhaps listening to advice that he distance himself from Venezuela, given the increasing social unrest and diminishing relations between his homeland and the US?
In fact, the concerts in Tokyo offer the best explanation: the relationship between Dudamel and the LA Phil works. So what better time or place to extend it than the season of cherry blossoms - sakura - that most magical moment of the year in Tokyo?
Cherry blossoms create an intoxicating excitement, giving permission to throw off inhibitions.
That was exactly the spirit with which the orchestra tour ended with an intricately shaded performance of John Adams' City Noir and an epically engaging one of Dvorak's New World symphony.
After the concert, players picking up green tea-flavoured Kit Kat chocolate wafers at a nearby market said something magical happened.
Japanese music professionals, who have seen it all in a city of nine professional orchestras and six major concert halls, and where the world's great orchestras appear regularly, spoke of Dudamel's Tokyo performances as transformative.
Dudamel's mantra has been that he is deeply happy. But he has also appeared here deeply serious. He was less casual than he used to be. He wore a business suit to a press conference, not the jeans he once might have sported. He is beginning to get flecks of grey in his hair.
In a short conversation, he says that at 34 he knows he is still young but becoming increasingly aware of the weight of his responsibilities. "You know when you are working in the right direction and you are getting mature," he says. "The vision opens more, and you get a better idea of what you want."
The vision he describes is one of focusing more intently on LA and Venezuela. Rather than back away from the problems in his home country, he will renew his efforts to help. And despite criticism at home for not taking sides in a divided country, he says he is doubling down his efforts to keep Venezuela's educational system, known as El Sistema, out of politics.
"It is something beautiful that works, that gives hope," Dudamel says. "It is the symbol of unity that we need so much of in our time."
He is planning this spring a tour of nucleos, El Sistema's music schools, in some of the farthest regions of the country to reach out to the children he feels demand more attention. Dudamel also says he is all the more committed to finding ways of bringing his two homes together, such as a cycle of Beethoven symphonies he will perform at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in autumn with the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
Dudamel has been given, along with the new contract, the title of artistic director of the LA Phil on top of being music director. He calls this an honour, not more responsibility. The orchestra describes it as an acknowledgment of Dudamel's leadership all along in programming and the institution's social and educational programmes.
Earlier, in a statement, the conductor said the orchestra enjoys "an unparalleled situation in the world of classical music today: great musicians and a strong community base". Conducting in the City of Angels, he says "is a magical experience, and I owe so much to so many angels and Angelenos".
The orchestra did not disclose the deal's financial terms. The conductor, who is also music director of the Simon Bolivar orchestra, earned US$1.44 million in 2012 from the LA Phil, according to the orchestra's most recent public tax filing.
"He has begun to define the intersection between artistic and social imperative," LA Phil president Deborah Borda says. "The longer he stays, the longer that concept becomes embedded in the DNA of the organisation."
The collaboration between Dudamel and Borda has made the orchestra one of the most acclaimed in the US. The Phil has the largest budget of any American symphony and benefits from two landmark venues: Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Dudamel, who succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as conductor in 2009, has been praised by musicians and critics for his classical- and Romantic-era leanings while also embracing contemporary composers such as John Adams.
"I think it's a wonderful thing," Thomas Morris, former CEO of the Cleveland Orchestra, says of Dudamel's contract extension. "It provides artistic stability. There's no question about the incredible success in the creative relationship between Deborah and Gustavo."
What Dudamel's "happy" decision may ultimately represent is that he has the maturity to gain knowledge and the long-range vision to know there are no shortcuts to greatness. To continue to grow, Dudamel requires not just a great but also uniquely flexible orchestra. He needs time, commitment and support. A little love doesn't hurt, either.
The LA Phil flew home the day the cherry blossoms were expected to reach their peak. Dudamel's sakura concerts were occasions of great renewal. His job now is to sneak the glow of the cherry blossoms through customs and begin planting in LA for the future.
Los Angeles Times
Additional reporting by Mike Boehm, Jeffrey Fleishman and David Ng