Column: Gustavo Dudamel has two years left on his L.A. Phil contract, but we already feel his absence

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When Gustavo Dudamel stepped on the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall last week to conduct his Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in three months, a big smile was on his face and the usual cheers came from the large audience he invariably attracts. It was, also as usual, a terrific concert. The usual stops there.

The L.A. Phil has had an uncharacteristic amount of worry, and Dudamel has been at the center of it. Little has seemed right since his announcement last year that he would exchange the L.A. Phil for New York’s Philharmonic at the end of the 2025-26 season. In short order, the orchestra’s imaginative and inventive president and chief executive, Chad Smith, resigned to head the Boston Symphony. The orchestra is also losing two of its outstanding principal players, violist Teng Li and oboist Marc Lachat, both leaving reportedly for family reasons.

Meanwhile Dudamel, who is now based in Madrid, has felt less an L.A. presence. His only concerts with the orchestra here this spring come in May’s first three weekends, followed by an L.A. Phil tour to Barcelona, Paris and London. He won’t be back until Aug. 29 for the last two weeks of the orchestra’s Hollywood Bowl season.

Dudamel’s return last weekend, however, brought a sense of optimism. On the day of his first concert back, the orchestra announced that Kim Noltemy, head of the Dallas Symphony, would become the new L.A. Phil president and CEO in early July. This at least put an end to rumors about the music director to replace Dudamel. Instead, we can expect a more considered search. There is no hurry.

Much of the month is occupied with tour preparations. The programs reprise two major highlights from spring 2022: the exhilarating production with Deaf West Theater of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and the premiere of Gabriela Ortiz’s violin concerto, “Altar de Cuerda,” with María Dueñas as soloist. The obligatory chestnut, Dvorák’s “New World Symphony,” also will be on the tour.

Dudamel was to receive this year’s UCLA Medal at a ceremony Tuesday on campus, where he was to conduct the UCLA Philharmonia and members of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. But the event was postponed because of campus unrest.

A three-month absence followed by a month with the orchestra followed by another three-month absence may not a music director make. But on the positive side, tours can prove excellent opportunities for bonding with the musicians on both musical and personal levels.

The focus of the tour is Dudamel’s Pan-American Music Initiative. Last week Ortiz curated a Green Umbrella program of new and recent works by Cuban, Argentine, Costa Rican and Mexican composers performed by the L.A. Phil New Music Group, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. They were wildly different in their vastness of instrumental colors, rhythmic vitality and nervous complexity.

Francisco Cortés-Álvarez, for instance, treated his L.A. Phil commission, “Operación Tamarindo,” for large ensemble, as an aural immersion in a spicy candy-making factory. Everything from Mexican pop to European experimentalism was strained, boiled, compressed and stretched into addictive instrumental taffy.

Dudamel’s opening non-tour program was conventional and revolved around Spain and Portugal. Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto featured Portuguese soloist Maria Joao Pires, a captivating, ethereal pianist. She played with a Buddha-like calm, alleviating Beethovenian angst with a kind of exquisite pianistic deep breathing.

The essence of this Beethoven was in finding peace, and that essence was furthered in Strauss’ tone poem “Don Quixote,” which followed, and the premiere of Andreia Pinto Correia’s “Cortejo,” another L.A. Phil commission. This was what the Portuguese composer called her own take on the fantastical world of Cervantes’ — a kind of processional colored calm in which melodic or rhythmic wisps reconfigure, never quite to be captured.

For “Don Quixote,” Dudamel turned to L.A. Phil principal cellist Robert deMaine and Li, who remains with the orchestra through the Bowl season. Both brought character but not too much, always remaining part of the larger ensemble. They brought beauty, too, as much as they liked.

The “Don Quixote” was pure Dudamel, conveying narrative nuance in Strauss’ chronicle of the knight of “sorrowful countenance.” Dueling with windmills or the bright moon, desiring Dulcinea, coming to his senses and dying are the Don’s business. In Dudamel’s business each becomes an orchestral marvel.

Dudamel has two more seasons as the L.A. Phil’s music and artistic director. Inspired by Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen, he has repeatedly said he wants to maintain a relationship with the orchestra after he leaves and is reportedly dreaming up future projects.

In August, Dudamel will bring the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela to Carnegie Hall in New York, Ravinia in Chicago and Tanglewood in Massachusetts. For some reason, though, the L.A. Phil is not hosting him and the beloved youth orchestra in his beloved Hollywood Bowl. Will absence make the heart grow fonder?

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