Gustavo Dudamel has been on t.v. and in the news lately, having just begun at the L.A. Philharmonic, which is a pretty good gig. People are amazed–this man doesn’t look like a conductor! He’s not white or old and his hair is curly! The PR machine likes him because of that–oooh, diversity! He’s controversial because people are excited about him, and then critics ask if it’s hype. “Are we just excited because he’s not a stereotype?” (Those reviews were from Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively. The hometown L.A. paper’s response to them and their like is basically “thppbt.”)
It is a problem of ignorance. The general public don’t know much about conducting, and they have some assumptions about what it is, what it means, what conductors do. Hopefully they’ll start reading my blog and begin to understand, and then critics won’t be in charge of telling us who is an artist and who is a product of PR hype. Until then, I can only persistently repeat myself.
Have you seen Ratatouille? It’s the cg animated movie about a rat in France who loves to cook. I really like it. The moral of the story is told to us by Peter O’Toole, who plays a food critic (Ahem. A critic.), named Anton Ego. The moral is that “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” It sounds best when Peter O’Toole says it at 1:26.
Immediately following this moment in the movie, Anton Ego is punished for his “defense of the new:” he loses “his job and his credibility” when the health inspector condemns the restaurant for having rats. It’s okay, though: he invests in the rat cook’s new restaurant and the great work goes on in a less high-profile venue.
I also love the moment in the beginning of this clip when Anton Ego, the critic, takes his first bite. They show what it feels like in the moment that you are moved, touched by art. Their depiction of that experience rings deeply true to me. It leads me to believe there were people working on that movie who had a real sense of the importance and power of art both high-profile and small-scale. And it’s amazing that they work on a big, huge movie like Ratatouille so that masses of people can see and hear about that power.
Dudamel knows that power, too. He is passionate and his passion is contagious. This is a YouTube clip that made the rounds a while back:
His interpretations are neither nuanced nor subtle, but they’re dramatic. He takes risks, such as artists take, by putting his work out into the world for us to judge. That’s impressive. If he’s not a consummate artist yet, well, he’s twenty-nine for heaven’s sake! I wouldn’t want a newspaper reviewing my current work–I feel pretty good about my work, but I’m aware that I’m still what they call a “young conductor” and I see how much I have to learn before I become a conductor like the really great ones. Dudamel’s got fire and passion and gets people excited about going to hear art music! I’m all for that. The sophistication will come with age and maturity. And maybe he’ll take his audience with him. If that doesn’t happen, oh well. It’s just music, no one dies if the woodwinds are a little sloppy or the string tone lacks richness. I say, let’s celebrate the attention and use it to have conversations about art and expressiveness. Instead of saying, “it’s not good enough,” let’s say, “it’s interesting,” “my experience of it was…” and “here’s what we might do with it!”
Because it’s just art.
It’s the most important thing human beings do on this earth, but it only benefits us. Bad art never hurt anyone, mediocre art can be accessible and useful, and great art has lifted souls like nothing else can. Let’s have it all!