January 28, 2011
Posted by Joan V. Gallos
For the last thirteen years, The Dude to me has been the Jeff Bridges character in the Coen brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski. Memorable character. Great film. I have fun associations from enjoying the film with my younger sons. I quote lines from it regularly. When I’m at my wits ends, that’s the film I want to see. I never expected to replace The Dude with another. But it happened.
Gustavo Dudamel, the young charismatic conductor of the LA Philharmonic, is now My Dude. Jay Leno on late-night TV first alerted me to Dudamel’s possible contention for the title. I scoffed. I’ve seen (and I own) the 60 Minutes show on Gustavo. I have known about him and his work since his appointment at age 27 to lead the LA orchestra. I use him as a model of leading with soul and passion in my teaching. Charismatic leader? Absolutely. The Dude? Come on.
I travelled to LA to investigate – or to be more specific, I went on the first of two planned trips to hear the LA Phil, see Dudamel in action, talk with some of the musicians, and research the young conductor’s real impact on one of the world’s great orchestras. This pleasant scholarship was intended to tease out the hype and marketing from real leadership.
The buzz in the classical music world is that Gustavo has something special. I wanted a first-hand feel for what that is and to hear what the musicians say and do in response to it.
I saw the banners hung on every lamppost in downtown LA — and I thought creative advertising campaign. I approached the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and enjoyed its beauty. Creative architecture. I noted the crowds entering the Hall– people of all ages and ethnicities — arriving for a musical form declared dead by so many. As a classical music lover, I appreciated the strong ticket sales.
I took my seat in the Concert Hall, 35 feet or so from Dudamel and to his left at an angle that let me see his gestures and face up close and personal. Nice. Bernstein and Beethoven on the program. Two of my favorites. Front row, center seat for the after-performance talk-back with Dudamel, the vocal soloist of the evening, and a member of the orchestra before going downstairs to talk with other LA Phil musicians. Unexpected bonus. Who should hold the title of The Dude? Not a question on my mind or in my research protocol.
5 minutes into the first movement of the first piece of my first live Dudamel-conducted concert, I knew something powerful was happening. Interpretation, pacing, variations like I’ve never heard. Nuance that made known music new again. Musicians – many more than twice the conductor’s age – watching and responding intently and with faces that indicated more than ordinary attention to the boss. Many had smiles of joy and pleasure as they played complex and serious music. That’s not what I’m use to seeing.
I’ve watched from close vantage, for example, many of the great conductors leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I have studied their leadership, relationship, and interaction at work with the orchestra during many open rehearsals. Something was different with Dudamel and this orchestra. He could influence them with the most subtle of movements: slight nod of the head, twinkle of an eye, squeeze of his shoulder blades. And everyone on that stage was clearly having a good time.
Now don’t get me wrong. Dudamel has been described as a conducting animal, and there were opportunities to see his athletic conducting style. But that struck me as less important a feature of his impact than I had expected. What was more palpable was shared energy and enjoyment. The mutual affection. The relationship of reciprocal appreciation and connection between Gustavo and the musicians – and the music that came from that partnership.
When the piece was over, soloists and orchestra were acknowledged by the conductor and crowd while Dudamel beamed at the players and stood with his back to the audience. Then he turned from the podium. He did not, however, take his solo bow from center stage as conductors normally do. Rather he walked in among the musicians and then turned to audience: conductor and musicians took their final bows together.
After the concert and talk-back, the word from the musicians with whom I spoke was that all this was genuine. Dudamel made a significant difference in their playing – in their work lives. No, they weren’t just a friendly, happier orchestra than the BSO or others. Dudamel’s trust and respect brought out their best work. Their affection for him resulted in a willingness to trust in return – and to follow when he lead with radically different interpretations of music than the musicians had been playing for years. Experienced professionals led by a wunderkind? No – and you could feel the musician’s affection and respect for Dudamel in their immediate protests: experienced professionals led by a talented conductor who is taking the entire orchestra to new heights. Musicians spoke of playing in ways they never thought possible. The innovation was fun. The fun added energy. Audiences responded. The results are spectacular. The Dude torch was passed by the time I left the Concert Hall.
The morale of the story: real leadership is talent and preparation wedded with shared purpose, mutual respect, humility, and a contagious spirit of enjoyment and innovation that facilitates joy at work and unimaginable results. Leading with passion and soul. No doubt. That’s how My Dude does it.