Can Gustavo Dudamel’s Star Power Boost the Philharmonic?

Good morning. It’s Thursday. Today we’ll find out why a bartender in Brooklyn called the conductor who was just named music and artistic director of the New York Philharmonic a “monstruo” — Spanish for “monster” — and meant it as a compliment.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Eduardo Cordova recognized Gustavo Dudamel’s name immediately. Dudamel is the superstar conductor who, like Cordova, is from Venezuela. Dudamel just signed a contract to join the New York Philharmonic as music and artistic director starting in 2026. Cordova, a bartender at a Williamsburg Venezuelan restaurant, explained what he meant by “monstruo,” describing Dudamel as “someone who has achieved a lot, a person who is talented.”

Hiring Dudamel is a coup for the orchestra, which has settled into David Geffen Hall after a $550 million renovation that improved the acoustics. Hiring Dudamel — who has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009 — also adds new possibilities to questions about the New York orchestra’s artistic direction. I asked Zachary Woolfe, our classical music critic, for his assessment.

You asked the question after the news about Dudamel broke: Is he New York’s new Leonard Bernstein? In a market as crowded as New York, does Dudamel have the kind of star power to put this orchestra on the map in the way Bernstein did in his day?

It’s a different world now, certainly for classical music and its place within the culture. The position that Bernstein held was unique. There’s never been in the American context someone who was both a creator and interpreter, who was both high and low, who could shuttle between Broadway and Hollywood and concert halls. The Philharmonic is longing to recapture that, the success that they had in the ’60s with him.

Dudamel is the closest that we have in terms of someone who has managed to break through into the mainstream. That has happened only a few times in classical music. Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist, has become a household name while maintaining his classical bona fides. With conductors, there are many who are classical-famous, but in terms of the ability to move between these worlds, to work on the “Star Wars” soundtrack as Dudamel did and conduct — that is rare. He’s the closest that we have in a world in which classical music is ever further from mainstream culture.

Will Dudamel’s arrival change the makeup of the audience at Lincoln Center? Will having a conductor who appeared in a Super Bowl halftime show or, as you say, conducted a “Star Wars” movie, do that?

The Philharmonic hopes so.

He’s 42. There’s a youthfulness, there’s an energy and there’s the pop-culture mainstream fame, all of which I imagine the Philharmonic hopes will drive audiences. The hope is that he will invigorate the existing audience and that there are people outside the existing audience who will decide he’s somebody they just want to see.

He is Venezuelan and a Spanish speaker coming to a city that has a sizable Spanish-speaking minority. I think the Philharmonic is obviously hoping there are communities that can have a greater connection to the institution through him — and will have the confidence to take a chance on a symphony concert.

Also, as the pandemic has lingered, orchestras generally are having trouble with attendance. The Philharmonic got lucky because there was a lot of curiosity about the reopening of David Geffen Hall in October, so they have avoided that Covid hangover. Because of the ridiculously long planning cycles for conductors and soloists in classical music, Dudamel won’t be here for three more years, but they’re hoping the announcement will be something else that helps keep them from experiencing what a lot of orchestras are experiencing.

The other part of this equation is the enthusiasm of donors.

For any of these institutions, that’s as important as ticket sales. They work in tandem, obviously.

He’s going to have big dreams. He might well do something akin to what he’s done in Los Angeles, where they have an orchestral youth education program, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, known as YOLA. That will require the institution — the New York Philharmonic — to get bigger and the budget to increase. It’s one thing for a conductor who’s not that well-known to say “I want to start an education program.” The institution could say “great,” and that would be that. But with Dudamel, the fame and the excitement could make such a dream possible.

YOLA was modeled on El Sistema, the free Venezuelan music education program, which he came up through. He has always been very serious about the influence that El Sistema had on him and his desire to recreate experiences like that for people in Los Angeles. The thought would be to echo that in some kind of program in New York.

But, again, New York is a very crowded, very challenging market for any of the performing arts, especially for classical music. In other cities, you’re kind of the only game.

That raises a question that’s similar to the question about the audience at the concerts, but different: whether he can change the way classical music figures in the life of the city.

This is a huge shift in terms of attention, I think there’s no question.

Whatever happens, without question this rejiggers the center of gravity even within Lincoln Center. The Philharmonic has been playing second fiddle to the Metropolitan Opera, which has a bigger budget, generates more publicity and does big theatrical productions.

Then you have Carnegie Hall, where the best orchestras are always going to play when they’re touring.

If you’re the New York Philharmonic, you’re doing your thing week in and week out. That’s always been the challenge for the Philharmonic — really standing out — and that’s only the little corner that is classical music. There’s ballet. There’s Broadway. Even when you’re doing good work, it’s hard to get attention for it.

That’s resulted in a lot of frustration and short tenures for Philharmonic music directors. There’s a lot of noise and a lot of competition within and without in the city, and when you have somebody who’s magnetic and attention-grabbing, you have a better shot.

The New York Philharmonic is always on everyone’s list of the top five or top 10 orchestras. Where is it on the list these days, and will bringing in Dudamel change that?

When you’re talking about this upper tier of however-many orchestras, the distinctions are slight and can vary by the week, by the piece and by matters of taste that are not necessarily objective. The Philharmonic is incredibly virtuosic, with lots of wonderful players. That said, in terms of subtlety and amazing colors and pure aesthetic beauty, there are a handful that I like to listen to more.

Partially, that’s the hall. When it was Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic’s playing was too punchy, too loud, too unsubtle. I think that was a way of dealing with the acoustic limitations.

If he can relax it, instill more subtlety and more intimacy in the playing — and more naturalness — he’ll have done a great job. What you have when you’re a star like Dudamel is that they’ll listen to you.


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The latest New York news

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Dear Diary:

I was standing on the platform at the Union Square station. My heart skipped a beat when I saw her across the tracks: my ex-girlfriend from college. We had broken up bitterly several years earlier because I wanted to move to New York City.

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I shouted out my name, and she stared back at me quietly.

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