Recently a friend, a lapsed subscriber to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, asked me whether he should hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the orchestra. “By all means”, I answered, “but you have to adjust your expectations”. I added this qualification because Dudamel was talented and fortunate enough to rocket to the leadership of a major orchestra without really having gone through an apprenticeship.
As I told my friend, I was reminded of a DVD I saw recently about the career of the conductor Günter Wand (Günter Wand: My Life, My Music). In addition to the first part of the DVD, which is an informative introduction to a major conductor who is not well known in the United States, there is a second part which consists of a long interview with Wand’s biographer, Wolfgang Seifert. As the interviewer and Wand reviewed his career two things stood out to me:
First is the place, length, and character of his apprenticeship. From 1934 to 1938 Wand went to work as the “assistant conductor for Operetta” in the provincial theater in Allenstein, now Olstyn in the northeast corner of Poland, separated from the rest of Germany at that time by the “Polish Corridor”.
It’s hard to imagine the equivalent conditions for a young conductor today. Part of this is fortunate: Wand’s prospects were limited because he was not a Nazi Party member. But he clearly made the most of the adversity: in the interview he speaks with real fondness of his work in the provincial theater, where the repertoire consisted of Operetta and Spieloper (light opera with spoken dialog) and where he had only about 25 professional musicians to work with; the orchestra was supplemented by military musicians from the local garrison. But, as he says, “it was possible to make very decent music“ there and he earned a reputation because he was “smitten with theater work”.
Second is the time Wand spent in Cologne during World War II. He describes a life of musical asceticism: “there was no radio as we know it today and there were no recordings to buy”; “I had to work out Beethoven’s symphonies as well as Mozart and Bruckner – everything by myself . . . from the scores.” Again, it’s fortunate that young conductors are not subject to wartime conditions. But there’s no doubt that Günter Wand benefitted from close study of the scores in relative isolation under circumstances which would tend to concentrate the mind.
In Los Angeles Gustavo Dudamel is on a major stage under bright lights when he might otherwise be spending time as an apprentice. It’s to be expected that it shows. In spite of such grandiose offerings as the “Mahler Project” and in spite of his exuberance and that of his audience he really is a work in progress.