California’s Leading Conductors Come Together for a New Festival

LOS ANGELES — Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Rafael Payare are the three most influential orchestra leaders in California, but the first time they met as a group was last week.

The setting was a Right Bank hotel overlooking the Seine in Paris, and the subject was California: in particular a new, two-week music festival, announced by the three conductors’ orchestras on Tuesday, that will be staged in dozens of venues across the state in November.

“I still can’t believe it worked,” said Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Paris Opera, of he and his fellow conductors getting together. They had just recorded a promotional video for the festival’s website. “Not only were we all in the same city, but we all happened also to be free for an hour.”

The November event — called the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music — is a collaborative project organized by three maestros, Dudamel from Los Angeles, Salonen from the San Francisco Symphony and Payare from the San Diego Symphony. Cumulatively, they have spent about 35 years on California podiums.

Salonen, who was the Los Angeles orchestra’s music director from 1992 until 2009 and remains a draw when he guest conducts here, said that the festival would pay tribute to the enthusiasm of California audiences for new music by little-known composers, the kind of works that he, Dudamel and Payare have each promoted from their podiums.

“It’s been something I had been thinking about for a long time, from when I knew I would be taking over in San Francisco,” Salonen said in an interview from Paris, where he was conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his new Sinfonia Concertante for Organ and Orchestra. “Instead of seeing each other as rivals, we should do something together.”

The festival, which is planned for Nov. 3 through Nov. 19, will feature, in addition to the three conductors’ ensembles, over 50 orchestras, chamber music groups, choirs and jazz ensembles. They will perform in grand spaces like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, as well as smaller and more intimate ones tucked in communities across the state. The bulk of the repertory, which is still being organized, will be from the past five years, and from the worlds of jazz and classical music.

“The whole idea is that there will be new music, commissioned in the last five years, and with different composers from everywhere,” said Payare, who had taken a train from London to Paris to meet Dudamel and Salonen, where he was conducting “The Barber of Seville” at the Royal Opera House. “There’s a lot of music that has not been explored, that have never been performed. It tells us a lot about this period of California. It’s very welcoming and lets you be who you are and do things that are not traditional.”

Most of the performances will be indoor. “As the festival happens in November, we’ll have all of our performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall,” said Dudamel, who also leads the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. But in San Diego, which is temperate almost year-round, Payare said, some of the shows that he will conduct will be at the orchestra’s new outdoor Rady Shell.

Salonen said that while these conductors were overseeing the festival, they were also letting the individual groups chose what they want to present to audiences. “This is not curated in any kind of centralized way,” he said. “It’s more like taking the temperature of what’s going on at the moment. These can be there own commissions, or some other pieces. New pieces that they feel compelled to present.”

This kind of collaboration, Dudamel said, might be novel here, but he was used to it in South America, where he grew up.

“In Venezuela we work like this all of the time, sharing and creating together, and this coming together feels like a meeting of old, like-minded friends to be honest,” he said. “It’s something that feels quite natural.”

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