Dudamel May Be Bound For NY, But His Heart Still Beats In Latin Time

Gustavo Dudamel led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Arturo Márquez’s ‘Concierto de Otoño’ with Venezuelan trumpeter Pacho Flores playing four members of the trumpet family (here a soprano cornet). (Photos courtesy of the LA Philharmonic_

HOLLYWOOD, Cal. — So Gustavo Dudamel is running off to the New York Philharmonic in 2026 — and though he still has three years left to go in Los Angeles, the post-mortems and pontifications are already coming in hard and fast. Some think Los Angeles is in mourning for losing its superstar conductor to the dreaded culture barons on the East Coast. Others say the loss isn’t going to be as dire as thought due to various alleged shortcomings in his interpretations of the classics. As usual, the murky truth probably lies somewhere in between — and in any case, it’s too early to properly analyze the Dudamel years.

One thing we can say, though, is that one of Dudamel’s most valuable accomplishments has been in championing neglected or little-played music by Latin American composers — most recently through his pandemic-interrupted Pan American Music Initiative. There is a wealth of great music from south of the Mexican border that we in North America have not taken seriously, and I think one big reason is the emphasis on strong, often swinging rhythms in a lot of it. The gatekeepers have long been suspicious of anything that might get an audience irresistibly tapping their feet, or more complex rhythms that might be difficult for a Eurocentric orchestra to rehearse and play.

Well, it may be that Latin American music will prove the most potent way to refresh the repertoire and attract audiences back to the theaters and amphitheaters after COVID — once they get to know this music. Indeed, Dudamel’s marvelous all-Latin American program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Hollywood Bowl on July 18 attracted a large, enthusiastic turnout in the 17,500-seat, 101-year-old amphitheater; it looked like a bigger crowd than he had for his Verdi Requiem a week before. Even a couple of ushers in the aisles were moving happily to the beat at one point.

Florez and Dudamel backstage with four members of the trumpet family

Francisco Cortés-Álvarez’s La Serpiente de Colores (2022) — The Multicolored Snake — led off the evening with vicious growls from the piano, percussion, and brass. Given the subject matter and the almost industrial-sounding tread, could this be a sequel to Silvestre Revueltas’ famous Sensemayá (also involving a snake)? Things soon veered away from that model, though, with a toyshop of mallet percussion, many abrupt alterations in texture, and a sudden quiet interlude for horns lasting a few seconds before the mayhem resumed. A lot happens in the score’s eight-and-a-half minutes, enough so you want to hear it again to catch more.

Dudamel has long been a champion of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, whose Concierto de Otoño (2018) ought to be a hit everywhere as long as Venezuelan trumpet wizard Pacho Flores, for whom it was written, is around to play it. Flores, who recently recorded the work for Deutsche Grammophon, brought not one but four members of the trumpet family onstage with him — a trumpet in C for the first movement, a flugelhorn and soprano cornet in F for the second, and a trumpet in D for the finale.

The opening movement, drenched in Romantic colors from Mexico and other Latin countries, waves the nationalistic flag. When Flores took up the flugelhorn in its lower register during the contemplative second movement, with an Afro-Cuban clavé rhythm deep in the mix, it sounded more like a trombone than itself. The finale is subtitled “Conga de flores,” with that knockabout Cuban dance rhythm in full force — and as a showcase for its namesake soloist, it has one of the most entertaining cadenzas you’ll ever hear on any instrument, full of jokes and ear-bending smears. Both Márquez and Cortes-Álvarez were in the audience to bask in the tumultuous ovations.

Baritone Gustavo Castillo and Grupo Corpo were featured in Ginastera’s ballet ‘Estancia.’

All of that was a warmup for a surefire hit, Alberto Ginastera’s complete Estancia ballet, with a 20-member delegation from Brazil’s Grupo Corpo dance troupe on hand to make it a truly complete performance. Usually we just hear the 12-minute suite from Estancia — long a Dudamel party piece, with its thundering, driving malambo finale. But the complete work nearly triples the length and introduces some attractive lyrical dances, moody night music, a piano that mimics the open strings of a guitar, and a dissonant passage just prior to a wild wind fugue that is supposed to represent busy townsfolk invading the rural pampas. There is also a vocalist, a baritone who doubles as a narrator in a few spots. This was the nationalistic Ginastera before he moved on to become an abstract cosmopolitan modernist (accordingly, he was buried in Geneva, Switzerland, near Ernest Ansermet, not his native Argentina).

Dudamel and the LA Phil had previously performed the complete ballet in concert form last year in Disney Hall, and while Grupo Corpo’s corps added some energetic and romantic visual stimulus, this score doesn’t absolutely need it, delivering a full wallop on its own steam. A handful of uncertain-sounding passages aside, it received another sizzling performance from Dudamel and the orchestra — only louder with the booming amplification. The baritone was Gustavo Castillo from Dudamel’s hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela; he sounded bright and forthright.

It’s safe to say this kind of Latin American program landed dead-center in Dudamel’s sweet spot. This is what he does best, always has, probably always will. Thanks goodness for that; this music needs advocates who get it as completely as he does. Hopefully, New York will get a heaping quantity of it when he gets settled there.