How Gustavo Dudamel spends his Sunday

How Gustavo Dudamel spends his Sunday


norman lebrecht

January 30, 2012

On Sunday morning, Gustavo Dudamel conducted a rehearsal of Mahler’s ninth symphony. At 2pm, he led a public performance of the sixth. At 7pm, he held sway over a choral rehearsal of the eighth.

That is a work rate of which Mahler at his most manic would not have been ashamed. But Gustavo, when I caught him five minutes before the afternoon concert was his usual beaming self, available for a last-minute chat, oblivious to well-meant suggestions that he could do with a shave.

After a week of Dudamel’s Mahler in Los Angeles, with two orchestras – the Simon Bolivar and the LAPO – I got the impression that he’s on one of those all-you-can-eat phone contracts, applied to the musical process. He just loves what he does and cannot get enough of it.

He conducted Mahler’s sixth from memory, having learned it from Leonard Bernstein’s score, with the legend ‘Mahler Grooves’ pasted across the opening pages. It was a daring, aleatory performance in which the order of the middle movements was not decided until the very last minute and no-one except the percussionist knew until he lifted his hammer whether it was going to be two blows in the finale, or three. In the event, the blow was so heavy it broke the specially-built anvil.


After the Saturday night concert, I informed the audience in a q&a session that we had heard a historic interpretation of Mahler 6 – less doom-laden than usual and at times positively sunny, but an approach that reflected its place and time: California in the second decade of the 21st century. Dudamel, 31 last week, will conduct it differently in other times and places. This interpretation, however, will live on in memory and legend.


  • This is amazing. I wonder how conductors can memorize such long works and play them all in a couple of weeks without forgetting notes or getting lost and even doing legendary performances. It s incredibly nice!

    • Doug says:

      Oh they do, believe me, even the highly vaunted ones like Dudamel. Some are better at hiding it than others, that’s all.

  • Terry Hoffman says:

    I was at the Sunday 2pm concert. This was the first time that I heard Mahler’s 6th Symphony. For me, it was a brilliant introduction. I loved it. Only one problem. The audience was so excited at the end, and/ or so star struck with Maestro Dudamel and/or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, that I could not hear and enjoy the final notes. Reminds me of being at a Beatles or Rolling Stones concert when the sound of fans overrides the sound of music. I’m happy that classical music is so popular and I am a huge fan of both Maestro Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but I would have liked to have heard the end. Is it just me?

    • Steve de Mena says:

      At Saturday night’s performance there was a good 15-20 seconds of silence before the first applause. The string players held their bows above their instruments at the end, to make it appear there was more music coming and to potentially hold off applause. It seemed to help. Next week I see the Mahler 9 and I hope there is a similar silence at the end of that symphonie’s moving 4th movement.

      I enjoyed the Andante – Scherzo order. And Norman’s pre and post-concert talks.

  • Mathieu says:

    You did not tell us: what was the order of the middle movements after all ? (I must say, I do favor orthodoxy in this case, and no argument has convinced me of the contrary yet).

    • It was Andante-Scherzo. Perfect.

      • Mathieu says:

        Eh… I am still not convinced. Even Abbado does not convince me of the necessity of switching movements. If I may say, I think Mahler “grooves” a litle bit more when the middle movements are in the traditional order (I would have a whole point to make, but it would take too long!).

        • What do you mean by ‘traditional order’, Mathieu? no such thing! Mahler did both.

          • Mathieu says:

            Well, sorry for being an unreasonable textualist (as lawyers would say) but by traditional order I merely mean the order printed in the score, and the order which has been followed until a recent fashion (an effet de mode as we say in French) suggested, against musical common sense, that the order should be inverted. (Mark Berry wrote on this topic two very convincing posts on his blog a few months ago, and I could not agree more with him).

            Of course, Mahler did both orders, and there is little doubt that he eventually favored the “non-traditional” one (according to recent research). This is a stone in the shoes of traditional-order proponents. But I still think it makes much more musical and logical sense to play it in the Scherzo-Andante order : the thematic similarities between the 1st and 2nd Mvts; the soothing effect of the Andante right before the devastating finale; the symetry or mirror effect (in terms of duration, 1st+ Scherzo = Finale, take a few minutes more or less); and the optimistic conclusion of the 1st movment (a recapitulation of the 2nd “Alma” Theme) is in retrospect more sadistic — sorry, more Mahlerian –, if one plays the daunting scherzo right after. I could go on and on.

            Anyway I am sure Dudamel was very good in this piece. But no one can beat the 1988 Bernstein/VPO (the woman apartheid and racism issues notwithstanding) version.

  • Rodney says:

    I saw the performance of the 6th Friday night. It was truly amazing. From my vantage point behind the orchestra, Gustavo was beaming, but looked completely exhausted after the conclusion. One of the reasons I keep those seats every year is to see conductors head on and Gustavo never disappoints. I wish everyone could have seen that performance.

  • Hanna Luise von Falkenstein says:

    Oh my…I heard the same Saturday night concert of the LA Phil and felt that the performance was extremely uneven. Dudamel was more in control of the middle movements–he is talented to be sure. But the outer movements were incoherent. More like a wild ride on a roller coaster in the dark than a beautiful, searching dialogue with an extremely deep person.

    After hearing 4 of the Dudamel Mahler symphonies (2 with the LA Phil, 2 with Simon Bolivar) two things became clear for me:

    1: Dudamel is indeed sunny, talented and passionate. But he does not get structure. Mahler writes a VERY dense text, operating structurally at several levels with extremely complex sonata form, and it takes a better balance of analytics and passion to get the thing to hang together, to display the gorgeous thinking Mahler has done coherently.

    2: After hearing many other conductors do Mahler, it’s become clear to me: the most compelling readings are done by COMPOSER/conductors. They have a better shot at bringing the art of Mahler’s complexities forward.

    I’m very happy for the LA Phil that Gustavo Dudamel is such a big success and I’ve heard him lead some wonderful performances. But he’s off my list for Mahler.