Gustavo Dudamel | The Maestro Cometh
Ten years ago, the los angeles philharmonic carved gustavo Dudamel rose quickly through the ranks of El Sistema.
Dudamel’s name into the history of Los Angeles with fanfare fit for royalty. Deborah Borda, then CEO for the LA Phil, celebrated the Venezuela-born conductor’s appointment as the orchestra’s new Music Director with a months-long blitzkrieg. Billboards citywide bore his smiling face, capped with his trademark shock of curly hair. Festivities culminated with a massive star-studded inaugural concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and a firework show that spelled out his name. But few realized that behind all the fanfare lay a call to destiny for the then-28-year-old conductor. He was to become the final piece of a puzzle first begun in 1919.
William Andrews Clark Jr., the philanthropist son of a US Senator and copper baron, founded the LA Philharmonic orchestra 100 years ago with the intention of bringing a world- class orchestra to the fledgling city. Throughout the years, numerous CEOs and directors have tried to keep his vision alive—albeit with varying degrees of success.
Flash forward a century later, when Dudamel first arrives in Los Angeles in 2005 as a guest conductor at the LA Phil. His appointment as Music Director only four years later marked a defining point in the orchestra’s history. Critics that once considered LA to be a cultural backwater (at least in the classical music space) have since recognized the LA Phil as a progressive tour-de-force, rivalling the world’s best.
Clark Jr.’s original goal, however, is not ambitious enough for Dudamel. For him, music is an art form that enriches people’s lives, that builds communities, and connects those communities to the rest of the world. It’s more than a signpost with which to signal the existence of high-art and culture in a region—it’s vital to society.
“Think about it. What is art, ultimately? What is culture?” he asks, gesticulating with his hands as if conducting, though in a much more subdued manner than when he takes the podium. “It is a people’s identity. Do you know what I mean? The great artists, the geniuses, no matter where they live or where they were born, gave all of humanity a gift... This means that when we play Beethoven in Peru, for instance, we can play him as a European composer with a Peruvian identity, or a Venezuelan one, or Argentine, or Japanese.”
His distinct idea of a formed musical identity has not gone unnoticed in his own work. Many a dazzled review of Dudamel’s live concerts have noted his distinct musical style and identity, though most have failed to describe it adequately. For Dudamel, the answer is simple. It is the distinct identity of artists trained in Venezuela’s youth musical program, El Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas y Coros Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (El Sistema for short).
El Sistema is an intensive educational program that provides free music lessons and instruments to children in Venezuela. Dudamel joined the program at age ten, learned to play the violin, studied musical composition, and was assistant conductor in his class by age eleven.
“I believe that we have developed an identity, a way of understanding music in our own way,” Dudamel explains of El Sistema, ”and that is what people hear when they say that it sounds more Latin American. With the identity that we’ve developed comes a discourse that we created ourselves, by believing in ourselves. We confronted music and the complexity of that music, not just from a technical aspect, but also as an idea.”
“To interpret a musical work is not only a question of technique,” Dudamel continues, “it’s also very much a philosophical and psychological question, and within our development in our youth, we achieved a style of playing and musical interpretation that makes people feel...” He flashes a smile. “Well, very happy.”
He was appointed as the Assistant Conductor at the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra in 1993 and was promoted to Music Director three years later. He was then appointed Music Director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar in 1999 at age 18, conducting the best of his fellow musicians from El Sistema.
Dudamel first gained international fame in 2004 when he won the inaugural Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition. His CV has grown exponentially since then, with appearances conducting some of the world’s most illustrious orchestras (Vienna Philharmonic, Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra) as well as guest appearances on some of pop culture’s most revered programming (Mozart in the Jungle, Sesame Street). He is also the youngest conductor to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s traditional New Year’s Day concert, as well as the youngest Music Director hired by the LA Philharmonic.
Dudamel’s musical education, however, was secondary to the larger life lessons that he learned from El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu. Abreu founded El Sistema in Caracas in 1975 based on his belief that music could serve as a positive catalyst towards a utopian ideal of unity and solidarity—ideals that are clearly evident in Dudamel’s philosophy as well.
“What made him special was that he didn’t limit himself to, let’s say, a specific question about life,” Dudamel recalls of his former teacher and mentor. “The Maestro was a great musician, the Maestro was a great leader, a great thinker, which is why the program he created wasn’t limited to just music, but used music as a means of social uplift. It was through this method that the professor gifted us this philosophy of life, which is, essentially, music as an essential right in the development of every boy and girl.”
Dudamel’s time at and continued work with El Sistema has also drawn plenty of criticism. The program is a government- funded initiative and, as such, has taken on a stronger political connotation in recent years as Venezuela has grown socially, economically, and politically unstable under the regime of Nicolas Maduro.
In years past, Dudamel would refute these criticisms, at times pointing out that El Sistema was not only created under a different administration, but has been funded by nine different administrations of differing political alignments since its founding. Perhaps he hoped that the school’s mission and importance would rise above any political ideology or dogma.
The conductor’s position changed in 2017 following the death of 18-year-old Armando Cañizales Carrillo, a viola player with the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil José Francisco del Castillo, at a protest rally. He penned a note in Spanish and English titled “Levanto Mi Voz/I Raise My Voice,” decrying the violence and volatility in his native country.
“I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people”, Dudamel wrote on his Facebook account. “Times cannot be defined by the blood of our people. We owe our youth a hopeful world, a country where we can walk freely in dissent, in respect, in tolerance, in dialogue and in which dreams have room to build the Venezuela we all yearn for.” Maduro responded by cancelling his tour of the United States with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, scheduled later that year.
Dudamel continues to speak out against Maduro’s government. In 2018, he was involved in the release process of Wuilly Arteaga, a violinist detained for his participation in peaceful protests. He took a few moments to speak directly to his countrymen in January at the inauguration of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and again in February before his performance at the Academy Awards. “I think that most people are demanding a change and this change has to be given,” Dudamel told AFP reporters on the red carpet. “I say this to my Venezuelan brothers: the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight.”
Remaining true to his mission and admiration for Abreu and El Sistema, Dudamel has taken it upon himself to expand Abreu’s work and vision that propped El Sistema up as an agent of social uplift to a global audience. His work with the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles is one aspect of that.
“That’s my primary objective in working with YOLA here in Los Angeles,” says Dudamel, “and also to share what I’ve lived because every time I see a child playing music as part of YOLA, it takes me back to my time as a child, sitting in my chair at home in Barquisimeto playing with my instruments, with very few possibilities in life, but still trying to turn my dreams into reality. That’s what happens with YOLA because it has taken such a profound role within the development of the Los Angeles Philharmonic itself, which is how we share our art and our works with the community.”
YOLA, under Dudamel’s guidance since 2007, works with a number of schools and non-profits to provide access to musical instruments, music training, and academic support to at-risk children from low-income communities. YOLA’s goals are much like those of El Sistema’s, and the program has provided its students with the type of opportunities professional musicians would kill for. Members of the youth orchestra have performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Fifty lucky students joined Dudamel onstage at the 2016 Super Bowl 50 halftime show, performing with Coldplay, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars.
Though he has taken up Abreu’s baton as the new Maestro, Dudamel humbly rejects any comparison to his late mentor, preferring instead to focus on the impact of his ideas on countless young musicians.
“It’s difficult to say that any one person was Professor Abreu’s chosen heir,” he explains, “because the full dimension of what he created is gigantic, is infinite. I had the opportunity to be like a son to him. He cared for me like a father cares for a son and so I do feel, in some way, indebted to him, but that’s a feeling I share with many others because we were thousands, millions of boys and girls who have built a career and life around music because of his dream, his creation.”
Dudamel has a packed schedule for the rest of 2019 with more events celebrating the 100th anniversary celebration of the LA Philharmonic scheduled until October. The celebrations began in September 2018 with the Celebrate LA! street festival. Other centennial celebration shows have included performers such as Katy Perry, Chris Martin, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Bird, La Santa Cecilia, and Moby. The orchestra will also embark on a Centennial Tour around the world with stops in Seoul, Tokyo, Edinburgh, London, Mexico City, and New York. The program will conclude on October 24th at the Hollywood Bowl with the official Centennial Birthday Celebration Concert & Gala.
In addition, the music director released a new album in March. The album, titled Dudamel: Celebrating John Williams, is a live recording of a tribute concert to the legendary composer at the Walt Disney Concert Hall that took place earlier this year. Dudamel conducted the LA Phil through a number of Williams’ most famous scores, including those for Star Wars, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and Richard Donner’s Superman.
Other plans this year include the grand opening of a Frank Gehry- designed YOLA center for disadvantaged youth in Inglewood. The complex will offer a space for children to develop their creativity and artistic skills through music, which Dudamel hopes will enrich and inform other aspects of their lives.
“This is just the beginning,” he explains. “This YOLA center in Inglewood will be the first of many we’ll build for the community, in this country and everywhere. My dream is global. My true dream is for music to become a part of the lives of children everywhere, even if they don’t plan on becoming artists. To have music form part of their creative development, especially that collective creative development that comes with creating as a group.
I believe that in today’s world, which is so competitive and individualized, we need to contemplate or reflect on the implications of what it means to create art together. That is what we are trying to pass on to our children.”