Last fall, when the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics both greeted new music directors, it seemed as though L.A. had gotten the marquee idol and New York the dour workhorse. Gustavo Dudamel, not yet 30, dazzlingly enthusiastic, and endowed with kinetic curls, arrived at the Hollywood Bowl in a cloud of fireworks. The sober, fortysomething intellectual Alan Gilbert returned to his native Upper West Side with more muffled fanfare, eliciting critical zingers like “conscientious,” “cautious,” and “dull.” The contrast recycled stereotypes of glitter-struck L.A. and stuffy New York, but it obscured the fact that in the high-culture arena, the two cities have formed a mutual-envy society.
New Yorkers envy Angeleno artists their free-form flamboyance. We’ve imported the extroverted architecture of Southern Californians like Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne (who designed the shimmery new Cooper Union building), and Neil Denari (the sleek High Line condo HL23). And for years, critics here used the L.A. Phil’s venturesome spirit to attack the New York Philharmonic’s oppressive sense of dignity.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, still aches to measure up. It has lured the New York star gallerist Jeffrey Deitch into taking over the Museum of Contemporary Art, part of L.A. billionaire Eli Broad’s one-man contemporary-art revolution, which includes plans for a new museum next to the shiny, voluptuous Walt Disney Concert Hall. The Los Angeles Opera presents its first full four-opera cycle of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen this week, preempting the Metropolitan Opera, which doesn’t get to its own new Ring until next fall. And then there’s Dudamel, who roared into Lincoln Center last week to show off his new band and offer an intercity challenge, conducting repertoire that rings with Manhattan overtones: Leonard (that’s our Lenny) Bernstein’s symphony The Age of Anxiety, a piece about neurotic New Yorkers; the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, who opened Carnegie Hall in 1891; John Adams’s City Noir, which was partly inspired by the TV show Naked City; and the First Symphony of Gustav Mahler, a former New York Phil music director.
The triumphalism rang hollow. The L.A. Phil concerts suggested that a second-tier orchestra has hooked up with a gifted conductor who comes alive for noisy finales but lets subtle passages drift. The cross-country tour elicited acid reviews, and the orchestra’s president, Deborah Borda, joked that what had begun as the “Eat Your Heart Out” tour turned into a “Schadenfreude” tour. As it happens, a few days later, Gilbert and the New York Phil threw off their reputation for stodginess by mounting a multimedia spectacular, György Ligeti’s wildly psychedelic opera Le Grand Macabre. Gilbert presided with Buddha-like aplomb over this festival of weirdness, all chattering brass, Mardi Gras costumes, and ghoulish exuberance. He may not sparkle for the cameras the way Dudamel does, but he mixes a mean cocktail of complexity, authority, and adrenaline—what you might call a Highbrow Manhattan. Sometimes it takes L.A.’s anxious ambitions to prod New York to be superb.