I am beginning to worry about Mark Swed.
The Los Angeles Times is today a mere walking shadow of the paper it once was, but its arts and culture coverage has somehow survived the cutbacks and defections of recent years with most of its strengths intact. Those strengths include the two Christophers, Knight (art/museums) and Hawthorne (architecture/urbanism), and historically I would also have tended to include Mark Swed, who assumed the position of chief classical music critic for the Times in 1996 upon the departure of the redoubtable (and certifiably world-class) Martin Bernheimer. The cracks, however, have begun to show. And this weekend they are showing in perhaps the most baffling paragraph I have seen in a 21st century music review.
For most of his tenure, I have found Swed to be knowledgeable, with a smart and agreeable writing style and a laudable inclination to support new or challenging music. In that latter respect, however, he has recently entered a disappointing "get off my lawn" phase, symptoms of which include his abundantly strange column last summer striking out against the"technological fascism" of electronic devices and social media, and his recurring outbursts of passive-aggression toward new music and composers originating around New York or, particularly, Brooklyn. This is just . . . odd.
But the particular oddity to which I am headed concerns Gustav Mahler and Gustavo Dudamel. Since Dudamel's arrival as music director and principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Swed has been a tireless, seemingly blinkered supporter, bringing to his Dudamel-related pieces a sort of "hometown" fervor more commonly seen in sports writers. That impulse is on full display in his writing on the Philharmonic's current Mahler Project, in which Dudamel will conduct all 9-plus Mahler symphonies—and more!—twice!—over five weeks!—on two continents!—with two orchestras!
The second program in the series premiered on Thursday evening, with Dudamel leading the Philharmonic in performances of the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony and of Mahler's First Symphony. Swed's review is predictably laudatory, and where it finds even a shadow of fault it quickly brushes it aside. ("The triumph of the First perhaps forced Dudamel into too much grandeur [in the Tenth] to avoid a feeling of anti-climax.") More irritating is Swed's couching of the review as a "compare and contrast" between this performance and Dudamel's leadership of the First Symphony in his 2009 premiere as the Philharmonic's new leader. There is an air boastfulness—"I was there for both of these very cool events and you poor saps were not"—that does not set well. This most recent performance is praised to the heavens and beyond, and when his enthusiasm is at its height Swed pulls this out of his quiver:
The bizarre third movement was the most changed from two seasons ago. An eccentric funeral march based on 'Frére Jacques' is interrupted by an outlandish klezmer band. At the gala Dudamel was understated; Thursday, he was not. I’ve never before heard a non-Jewish conductor get the effect the way Dudamel now does. Eastern European brass and Latin brass have closer ties than you might think.
The layering of ethnic and cultural presumption and stereotyping concentrated in those sentences is a perverse marvel to behold. Mahler, of course, was a Jewish conductor and composer, recurrently targeted by Viennese antisemitism and ultimately driven from Europe to New York by the rise of Nazism. His most vocal proponent over the past half-century, Leonard Bernstein, was also a Jewish conductor and composer. Mahler's Jewish identity was and is important, but the implication that the dichotomy of "Jewish/non-Jewish conductors" is meaningful, or that there is something innate in Mahler's music that a non-Jew will be unlikely ever to "get" is just . . . again, odd. It is difficult to imagine a similar remark being made in relation to Wagner ("I've never heard a non-German conductor get the effect—") or Verdi ("I've never heard a non-Italian conductor get the effect—") or Philip Glass ("I've never heard a non-Buddhist conductor get the effect—") or Benjamin Britten ("I've never heard a non-gay conductor get the effect—"). Slide down that slope far enough, you're bound to run into "natural rhythm," or worse. Swed inverts, but in a sense inadvertently legitimates, the sort of misbegotten logic by which Mahler's enemies could suggest that a Jew should not be trusted as a custodian of the treasured music of Christian Europe.
The tossed-off mention of "Latin" brass in the concluding sentence is also troublesome in context. Since his arrival, the Philharmonic has made much of Dudamel's rootedness, as a Venezuelan, in Hispanic America. Some of that has taken the form of outreach to the region's large Spanish-speaking population, but much of it has been tacitly targeted at the "traditional" Anglo symphony audience, lending to Dudamel a "passionate" "Latin lover" aura, a hint of "el Maestro loco" mystery, danger, exoticism. Swed's attempt to bridge the perceived gap between two cultural worlds comes off as more than a touch patronizing. (Not to mention that a happy melange of Eastern European and Latin American brass impulses has been the stock in trade of Zach Condon's band Beirut for the past several years....)
To be clear, I am not accusing Mark Swed of actual or even subliminal bad faith or ill will here. I accuse him only of tone deafness or a lack of self-awareness, most likely a result of letting his current enthusiasms run away with him. So yes, I have begun to worry about Mark Swed, but in this instance I should perhaps be more worried for the LATimes and the editors who let that passage slip by unquestioned.
Illustration: Still from the opening sequence of Ken Russell's Mahler (1974), emblematic of my brain's attempt to absorb the paragraph under discussion in this post.