Music of the People

Jonathan Bellman

A friend forwards an article by Arthur Lubow from the October 28, 2007 issue New York Times Magazine about Gustavo Dudamel, the newly crowned 27-year-old conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel is Venezuelan, and came up through el sistema, the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela. I know nothing yet of Dudamel, but as a somewhat local boy (my home town is on the eastern rim of Los Angeles County) I have a great affection for his new orchestra, and am very interested to hear what he can do.

In one sense, the article follows a predictable ad astra per aspera theme; Dudamel comes from humble origins, lived with his grandparents for a long time (they used to get up Fridays at 3:00 AM to get him to his conducting lessons, etc.). What caught my eye, though, was the presence of The Canon in Dudamel’s, and el sistema’s, up-by-the-bootstraps story. “I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ writes Lubow, doing his homework, “the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second violinists fingering pizzicato notes.” This isn’t so far from the Suzuki playbook, I guess; Classical Music Makes Good Citizens, etc., though it must rankle the anti-western culture people when disadvantaged people from other cultures develop a commitment to the established repertoire of, we’re told, western privilege. Or this:

At this stage of his career, Dudamel has a limited repertory, focused on the familiar Central Europeans (Beethoven, Mahler) and the underperformed Latin Americans (Arturo Márquez, José Pablo Moncayo, Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez).

OK, he’s young, his repertoire is not as big as it’s going to be, etc. But notice: Beethoven, Mahler—nothing more canonic than these two. The Latin Americans? Canonic, or becoming so, in Latin America maybe, and perhaps not yet elsewhere. The idea of a canon, of handed-down masterworks given to impressionable listeners of the lower orders like cod liver oil, has been so contested for so long that I can’t help grinning at the obvious: Dudamel’s Canon is in part THE Canon and part HIS Canon, and that still adds up to …The Canon. No requests for approval, just The Canon, what he plays. I’m sure people in LA are still talking about the collateral benefit of more potential involvement from the hispanic community (they always are, from what I hear), but I simply note the flexibility (or is it permeability?) of the idea of Canon itself. For all the complaints about the idea of Canon, there isn’t only one: the U.S. Canon has more Copland and Gershwin and Ives and so on in it, you’ll hear more Walton and Britten on the other side of the Pond, etc. etc. The feared Canon, in other words, varies more than it is often given credit for. (Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles and Mostly Mozart festivals may be another problem—a kind of Macdonald’s-like overfamiliarity that ultimately devalues them—but The Canon everywhere reaches beyond them.)

So, anyway, LA has a New World conductor, young and originally underprivileged (like the New World itself), and now on top of the world (ditto). His music is a mix of New and Old, which seems to be a problem for neither him nor his listeners. It’s music; he obviously sees value in much of the familiar and seeks to gain more attention for the less familiar, he probably understands better his batch of the less familiar than many of the rest of us. We stand to gain, here.

I know this sounds naïve, but I find this gleeful partial-endorsement, partial-interrogation of the beleagured Canon reassuring. Maybe Taruskin’s “just keep listening” ethic is the right prescription after all. My most vivid memories of the Los Angeles Philharmonic include some sky-opening performances with Giulini on the podium. Salonen was well after my time, but hey—LA is at least continuing to go for something different, not the same dwindling pool of jet-setting European octogenarians that the east coast orchestras go for.

Turn it up! I Love LA!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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