So it makes perfect sense that Dudamel, a superstar, would be the choice after van Zweden, a minor character even within the music industry. Van Zweden, in turn, was a martinet specialist in the standards who seemed appealing as an about-face from Gilbert, less electric in the core repertory. Gilbert’s familial closeness to the Philharmonic — both his parents were players — was seen as the antidote to Maazel’s remoteness. And so on, back to Bernstein. It’s a recipe for short-term satisfaction, and short tenures.
It’s also important to remember that Bernstein wasn’t merely a star; he was a visionary. When he came back to the Philharmonic from that mid-60s sabbatical, for example, he announced that his programs over the next two years would be dominated by 20th-century works — not short pieces, but substantial symphonies and concertos. That venture came from him, not from administrators whose marching orders he was executing.
So we’ll see whether Dudamel just offers the easy sheen of celebrity, or whether he’ll be connected organically to the orchestra, its growth and its city. He will certainly face challenges vastly more daunting than in Los Angeles, where that Philharmonic is the looming titan on the music scene. In New York, to the chagrin of conductor after conductor, you’re competing with the world’s greatest ensembles, constantly touring through Carnegie Hall with their best, most polished programs.
“A lot of us think,” Zubin Mehta once said, “why not send our worst enemy to the New York Philharmonic and finish him off, once and for all.”
Dudamel will immediately disrupt the city’s cultural center of gravity — including at Lincoln Center, where attention has long been weighted toward the mighty, publicity-grabbing Metropolitan Opera. For the Philharmonic, basking in robust attendance at its newly reopened hall as orchestras around the country are struggling, he offers the hope of further fending off a downturn. The question is whether he can fully break the New York music director curse for the first time since you-know-who.
When Bernstein announced he wouldn’t extend his contract past 1969, he said, “I shall always regard the Philharmonic as ‘my’ orchestra.” And in a way, it has been his ever since — still in thrall to what he represented and the feelings he inspired, still seeking to recapture all that.