We have spinmeisters too

It’s not often that one gets to see the classical music industry spin
machine so openly in action as with Gustavo Dudamel’s debut appearance
with the New York Philharmonic. Dudamel, for those one or two orchestra
aficionados who haven’t yet heard about him, is the Venezuelan
wunderkind who was hired (at the age of 7 or some equally ridiculous number) to be the next music
director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

From all reports, Dudamel is fabulously talented, so the press coverage he has received to date (which is extensive; 337 hits on Google News for the past month alone) is very likely merited. But one aspect of the recent coverage struck me as a good illustration of how the PR business operates in our industry: the “Daniel in the lions’ den” version of his debut with the New York Philharmonic. As the New York Times put it in one article:

…he made his New York debut conducting two substantive and exciting programs with the astonishing Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at Carnegie Hall. But those young musicians are like family. Conducting the hard-to-impress pros of the formidable New York Philharmonic is another matter. For Dudamel watchers this was the debut that really mattered.

An interesting statement, given that the guy has already conducted Boston, Chicago, the Vienna Phil and the Czech Phil, as well as Los Angeles. Obviously a story line needed to be created to make this event newsworthy. And the New York Times dutifully reported it:

How would this sometimes demanding bunch take to the tender 26-year-old Mr. Dudamel, who leaves a plume of hype behind him? How would this boyish, hyperenthusiastic wunderkind approach these musicians?

This was a tamer version of what was all over the Internet in the past week: would the baby Gustavo tame the monsters of the New York Phil? Of course he did (according to the NYT,anyway)

Somehow, he withstood the pressure and delivered teeming, impassioned and supremely confident performances of works by Carlos Chávez, Dvorak and Prokofiev. Clearly, the Philharmonic players were inspired by the boundless joy and intensity of his music-making.

The Times however, went beyond the usual press laziness and actually reported on the people behind the curtain:

A close coterie of figures is helping to shape his career. The group includes Deborah Borda, the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Mark Newbanks, his manager in London; Michael Lang, president of Deutsche Grammophon; and Mary Lou Falcone, a prominent classical music publicist who also represents the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

His international appearances have been carefully planned. It was no accident that the Carnegie Hall appearance, with his hometown orchestra of sympathetic young people, introduced him to New York, Ms. Falcone said. The New York Philharmonic is the latest stop in a string of guest engagements building in prominence.

I’m sure the musicians of the Vienna Phil will be pleased to know that they were a stepping stone to Dudamel’s appearance with the New York Philharmonic. But the story line that garnered so much press for this appearance virtually demanded this set of concerts be the climax.

Most of this is nonsense, of course. The New York Philharmonic is a great orchestra. But it is not more prestigious, or more demanding of those who conduct it, than is the Boston Symphony or the Vienna Philharmonic. Only the demands of the PR machine could make it appear that conducting the New York Phil successfully, after conducting the BSO and Vienna and having been appointed music director of the LA Phil, was the apex of a rising star’s career.

Lessons? Most of what you read about our business in the press is manufactured. Orchestras with money to burn are better able to manufacture the press they want than are others. There were a number of wonderful orchestral performances across the United States this weekend. One got national coverage.

Reader, beware.

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