By now, the rise of Gustavo Dudamel from the streets of Venezuela to the world’s top symphonic podiums has become common knowledge even in the mass media. It happened really fast.
After he had won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004 at 23, the world was soon beating on Dudamel’s door. Prestigious guest conducting dates came. Deutsche Grammophon signed him up, and he is still recording for the label. The Los Angeles Philharmonic grabbed him as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s successor only three years after his competition appearance. Musicians in notoriously selective orchestras like the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were, in the words of one observer, eating out of his hand. His championing of El Sistema, the Venezuelan state music program that raised him, spread the word about its phenomenal success and planted seeds around the world.
Yet the storied life of Gustavo Dudamel took some different turns in the half-decade leading up to his 40th birthday last January. No longer welcome in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela after he belatedly criticized the government in 2017, he is increasingly setting his sights on Europe, taking out Spanish citizenship. Opera will play a bigger role in his future now that he signed on as music director of the Paris Opera, starting in August. He is also a changed man on the podium, no longer as wild in gesture as he was, learning to get more results with less motion.
He remains at the LA Phil through 2026, so his contract says, as he continues to widen the range of his collaborations here well beyond the classical repertoire into pop and world music. Yet one wonders if he will be content to stay in this multicultural city, or is his ultimate goal to become a grand old European maestro?
One problem that hardcore collectors and casual fans will have is that Dudamel’s recorded output has been chaotically organized and marketed. Many releases are available only as streams or downloads, others hopscotch among some formats and not others. One album is available only as an LP; another can be had on LP, download, and stream but not CD. Over the first nine years of his tenure in Los Angeles, Dudamel and the Phil released exactly two albums — two — on CD (his LA Phil CD tally has picked up somewhat lately; as of this writing, it’s now five CD albums in 12 years, all double sets, curiously).
It’s as if those in charge of Dudamel’s career are still trying to figure out what to do in a confusing marketplace. But if you have the right playback equipment, you’ll have access to a lot of good Dudamel recordings — and a couple of great ones.
Discoveries — Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, CD, 2006–2012)
A one-stop survey of Gustavo’s early recordings, this collection of excerpts and short pieces could serve as an appetizer for those who want to start somewhere. There are some goodies that turn up here, and nowhere else on CD, like Arturo Márquez’s hip-shaking Conga del Fuego and the second movement of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 from Dudamel’s debut date with the Vienna Philharmonic, previously available only on LP. It was released in two editions with somewhat different programming.
Fiesta — Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (Deutsche Grammophon, CD, 2008)
This was Dudamel’s first great recording, coming straight from his wheelhouse — all Latin American music, the one exception being his explosive party piece, the Mambo from West Side Story. There are sizzling, irresistibly rhythmic performances of some relatively familiar fare like Revueltas’s Sensemayá, Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and Márquez’s Danzón No. 2, the latter which Dudamel placed firmly in the international repertoire. The disc also contains less-known things from Venezuela like Inocente Carreño’s symphonic variations Margariteña, Evencio Castellanos’s riotously colorful and varied Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, and Aldemaro Romero’s fascinating Fuga con Pajarillo.
John Adams: Slonimsky’s Earbox, Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) — Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano) (DG Concerts, download or stream only, 2011)
This download album takes care of two of Dudamel’s preoccupations while in Los Angeles in one shot. He does a bang-up job with LA Phil Creative Chair Adams’s energetic, Stravinsky-influenced orchestral workout. He was one of the strongest boosters of Bernstein’s orchestral music even before he arrived in L.A., and this passionate rendition of the earnest, Hebraic-drenched “Jeremiah” Symphony is a young man’s view of a young man’s music.
Gershwin: An American in Paris — Los Angeles Philharmonic (DG Concerts, e-video download or stream only, 2012)
Dudamel identifies totally with Gershwin in this winning performance full of idiomatic rhythmic feeling from the Philharmonic jazzers in the brass and percussion sections, with appropriate rubato in the homesick blues section. Dudamel really seems to be enjoying himself, live from Disney Hall, and his exuberance blasts through the screen of whatever size to the viewer. This is one of those oddball limited-format issues originally given away as a free download upon release and now available as a streamed video EP.
Mahler: Symphony No. 8 — Los Angeles Philharmonic, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (Deutsche Grammophon, DVD/Blu-ray, 2012) and Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale (Deutsche Grammophon, 2019)
Of Dudamel’s monumental 2012 Mahler Project, only three out of nine symphonies managed to get a release, and fortunately, this was one of them — a genuine “Symphony of a Thousand” with 1,400 performers, live on video from Caracas. Behold an impossibly huge chorus perched on a grandstand and watch Gustavo strenuously flailing as he holds these mighty forces together. A mere video can’t quite reproduce the live experience, but for those who caught the memorable earlier performance in Los Angeles’ barn-like Shrine Auditorium, this will be a cherishable souvenir. A later, faster Dudamel rendition of Mahler’s Eighth from Disney Hall in a “chamber” version with a mere 346 musicians comes out this month.
Verdi: Messa da Requiem — Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale (C-major, DVD/Blu-ray, 2013)
So far, there haven’t been any Dudamel recordings of complete Verdi operas in any format, so this live Requiem (“his best opera,” according to some wags) from the Hollywood Bowl is about as close as we have now to an indication of what he can do in core Italian fare. The performance can be seen as marking the beginning of a more inward, perhaps even mellowing maturation process. Leading the entire score from memory without baton, Dudamel’s tempos are broad and flowing, yet the climaxes are as massive as he can make them; he is always aware of big dramatic things happening. The sound is surprisingly clear and impactful coming from this problematic outdoor space.
Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker — Los Angeles Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon, 2-CDs, 2013, released 2018)
Dudamel has never been one to fluff off Tchaikovsky, as well he could have. Instead, he usually gives him jolts of energy, grace, and wonder that make even shopworn pieces sound fresh. Inexplicably held in the can for five years before release, this is one of the better complete Nutcrackers on the market — recorded live on the Disney Hall stage, gorgeously played with attention to detail, good rhythm, and not a hint of routine by the LA Phil.
Charles Ives: The Complete Symphonies — Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale (Deutsche Grammophon, 2-CDs, 2020)
Recorded just days before the shutdown of concert life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was for me the most successful of Dudamel’s many live symphony cycles — and it resulted in his second truly great recording. Dudamel completely captures Ives in all of his quirks, contradictions, nostalgic yearnings for a vanishing New England, and fearless ventures into complex modernist ideas. Gustavo’s glistening, levitating treatment of the Symphony No. 4’s celestial coda is only rivaled by that of Leopold Stokowski. Even skeptical European critics lavished praise on this set.
Also check out SoundStage, a series filmed at the Hollywood Bowl during the pandemic in which Dudamel exploits his desire to embrace all kinds of music and interests to a further extent than he has on his recordings. The second season has already featured Saint-Saëns, Adams, Schubert, and Pan-American music; coming up later this month are collaborations with rapper/actor Common and singer/songwriter Carlos Vives. No digital tickets required.