Sun, Dec 19, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Can classical rise from the dead?

Operas, symphony orchestras and chamber music need to take more risks, offer genre-bending music and step outside traditional concert halls to play in rock clubs and coffee shops

By Kyle MacMillan  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, NEW YORK

The latest heir to the Bernstein legacy and potentially classical music’s next breakout star — Gustavo Dudamel — comes not from the US but from Venezuela, a country with an extraordinary network of government-supported youth orchestras.

With a beaming smile, a flying mass of curly hair and an electrifying stage presence, the 29-year-old has captivated Los Angeles Philharmonic audiences — with every concert he has conducted in his first two seasons as music director sold out. He is high culture’s Justin Bieber.

The Philharmonic obviously sought to capitalize on Dudamel’s youthful spirit and the buzz already surrounding him when it chose him as its new music director, and it has been careful to curry his image but not oversell him.

“Gustavo was a really hot property and, so, everyone had this inclination that he was this rock star,” said Shana Mathur, vice president of marketing and communications. “But if you market him like a rock star, is that going to burn out really quickly, especially with the true classical music lovers? Is that too much hype? We really had to find a balance between what would excite new people and also what be authentic to who he is.”

Capitalizing on Los Angeles’ large Latino population, the orchestra introduced Dudamel with it called its Pasion marketing campaign, an effort keyed to Spanish words like electrico and vibrante that evoked the conductor’s dynamic persona and were decipherable by English speakers.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic also launched several popular smartphone apps, including a conducting game based on Dudamel leading works by Mahler and Berlioz, and, next month, it is rolling out a series of live HD broadcasts of the maestro and orchestra to movie theaters nationwide.

The big question is: How far can the young conductor go, especially in the face of media world that has all but turned its back on classical music? Does he have enough appeal to transcend the confines of the classical world and really become a breakout star like Pavarotti or even Clooney?

Inherent in any discussion of coolness and classical music is a need to manage expectations.

The form is probably never going to draw arena-size audiences like U2 or Madonna, but it can remake its image, broaden its reach and become more relevant to everyday listeners.

Classical as cool as Sinatra? Imagine that.

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