Looking For Gustavo Dudamel/LA Philharmonic CDs? Good Luck.

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

A Back To The Future moment in recordland – a new LP from Gustavo Dudamel. Shades of Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.  (c) Deutsche Grammophon

I realize that there is a brave new world of changing formats out there, a massive transition from physical to digital with supposedly washed-up technologies like vinyl LPs on the comeback trail.  Even so, Deutsche Grammophon’s release schedule for its caliente conducting star, Gustavo Dudamel, has taken a turn toward the bizarre this year.

“Discoveries” – a 2009 -podge of isolated tracks wrenched from Dudamel’s earlier albums, with a few previously-unreleased snippets thrown in – has just been re-released under the same title, a different cover, and a reshuffled lineup that deletes some tracks and adds some more. Seems to me they would have served Gustavo’s fans better by coming up with a new compilation instead of editing an old one less than three years later.

In March, iTunes suddenly made available a video of Gustavo conducting Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s annual gala benefit last September; for the first week it was free, and now it’s a mere $1.99. It was a terrific performance, Gustavo being one of the few who can get into the swing of Gershwin’s rhythms, but the sound was compressed and lifeless when piped through a good stereo system.  And that’s the only way you’ll be able to hear it, for there is no DVD or Blu-ray version.

And just a couple of weeks ago, on Record Store Day, DG released a recording of Dudamel leading the Vienna Philharmonic in Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony – on LP only!  The album cover is a deliberately nostalgic throwback to the yellow-banner jackets of the label that once gave you von Karajan, Kempff, Böhm, etc.  But when you go online or into one of the few shops that still carry classical LPs, this flat vinyl pancake will set you back $25 to $30.  True, it’s a charity project, with all proceeds going to El Sistema in Venezuela, and there is a promo video in which Gustavo unexpectedly sings the praises of LP warmth.  But that’s a lot of cash for 39 minutes of standard repertoire.

This is really strange marketing – items exclusive to one format or another, wildly varying prices or none at all, orchestras locked into one medium. Indeed, you currently cannot find Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic on CDs. All of their audio recordings together so far have been downloads only, while his audio recordings with his orchestras in Caracas and Gothenburg are all on CD and downloads. Compare that with full-service upstate rival, the San Francisco Symphony, which makes its audio recordings available on CD with SACD surround playback option, downloads, and in the case of its Mahler project,  LP.  It’s as if DG is making a bet that followers of Dudamel’s partnership with the LA Phil don’t buy CDs anymore (a look at Disney Hall’s well-stocked LA Phil store – which by the way, carries the San Francisco CDs – and the pre-concert visitors crowding the aisles within suggests otherwise).

So as they experiment away, trying to build new presumably-young classical music audiences around the phenomenon from Venezuela, it feels like 1950, when the Battle of the Speeds (33 vs. 45 and 78 RPM) raged and only succeeded in confusing the public. But then, overseas at least, maybe they’re onto something.  The re-made “Discoveries” – according to DG’s website – has hit No. 3 on the Swedish pop (!) charts, just ahead of Madonna (!!).  Could Gustavo’s new LP, inflated price tag and all, be next on the charts?