Gustavo Dudamel has just conducted the orchestra at the funeral of Hugo Chávez. For this profile, Clemency Burton-Hill watched him at work from LA to Milan
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013
SOUTH GRAND AVENUE in downtown Los Angeles, on a sunny Sunday in October. The steel abstractions of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall are gleaming under a deep blue sky. About 3,500 miles away, millions of Venezuelans are going to the polls for a presidential election. Inside this emblematically American hall, their compatriot Gustavo Dudamel is about to take a bow. Sunday-afternoon symphony concerts tend to be muted affairs, popular with older subscribers. But the reaction to this all-Beethoven bill, which includes the Eroica Symphony, is electric. As applause breaks over the hall, Dudamel leaps off the podium and embeds himself within his orchestra. Throwing his arms around a rank-and-file viola player and a cellist, he takes the bow with the whole ensemble. The audience rise to their feet, enraptured. It is three years since Dudamel took up the post of music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, aged 28, with an opening gala in front of 18,000 fans at the Hollywood Bowl, where the Beatles famously played. That five-hour extravaganza, which sold out in an hour, also involved fireworks, booze, giant plasma screens, hundreds of free tickets for the local Latino community, and a live HD webcast. Today’s concert, by contrast, is just an ordinary Sunday-afternoon offering. Nothing special; no fanfare. Except that there is now no such thing as a Dudamel concert without fanfare.
The applause feels visceral. Rather than leading the musicians in another regular bow, Dudamel motions for them to swivel and face the $17 seats known as "orchestra view". The noise climbs another few decibels, and in our brightly coloured seats in the stalls, here in the music hall that Gehry intended to be a "living room for the city", the CEO of the LA Phil, Deborah Borda, leans in towards me.
"That was something he did instinctively, first time he ever performed here," she says. "Now you think about it, it’s obvious, to turn the orchestra around and include all the people behind them. But it had never occurred to any conductor to do it before." Dudamel, a surprisingly short figure for a towering presence, remains planted within the ranks of his orchestra. Much in demand around the globe, he is only in LA for about 15 weeks a year. Have any visiting conductors learned from his approach? "Not a single one."
A little later, Dudamel is in his office backstage. His face, ever brimful of life, seems newly animated. "It is crazy, no?" he exclaims as he flops into a chair, wiping sweat from his brow. "It is just crazy, crazy music!" He has been conducting the Eroica, which Beethoven supposedly dedicated to Napoleon, since he was a teenager in Venezuela, yet he appears struck by some fresh revelation. "It is just a symphony," he remarks in his heavily accented English. "It is not history, there is no subject. But at the end, you have the death of the hero, and wow, it’s a lot…" He shakes his head, a mass of black curls, in seeming wonder. "This huge, humanistic man, Beethoven, the way he have this genius, to use the power of the music for a message of humanity…It is ah-mazing! At the end, it’s like the revolution of the man. The revolution of the people..."
There is an impatient knock on the door. Before his admirers are let in, I’m tempted to ask about a possible revolution in his country, although I know that Dudamel will not be drawn into politics. Hugo Chávez’s socialist government is just the latest of seven Venezuelan administrations since 1975 that have richly supported the national programme of music education and social action, El Sistema. Dudamel, a graduate of the programme, is now its music director. "It is impossible for me to talk about politics," he has said in the past. So I ask instead about that communal bow: is it a conscious decision not to enjoy a moment of individual glory? "I don’t see another way!" he says, with a wide smile. "The conductor is just a person who is part of the team. Imagine I was just 'conducting' here, now: you would receive nothing. You’d think I was just some crazy guy waving my arms around." Then the man who has been labelled the Musical Messiah points out something most conductors have either forgotten or never believed. "The thing is, you need the orchestra. You need them much more than they need you."
GUSTAVO ADOLFO DUDAMEL RAMIREZ was born in January 1981 in Barquisimeto, capital of the state of Lara in western Venezuela. His father, Oscar, was a trombonist in a local salsa band, Sucre y Gaitas, and his mother, Solangel, gave singing lessons. As a boy, Gustavo was dismayed to discover that his arms were too short to take up his father’s beloved instrument, but he began learning the violin aged five. Lessons took place at the local nucléo, one of the hundreds of free music schools across Venezuela that make up the El Sistema network, which now teaches some 400,000 children every day, around 90% of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Dudamels, though not wealthy by Western standards, were comparatively comfortable: Gustavo grew up in a small, simple apartment with his extended family. He remembers going to a concert at the age of eight, with his grandmother, Engracia, and being transfixed by the conductor. Back home, so the story goes, he stuck an LP on the record player, lined up his Fisher Price toys, and pretended to conduct them.
A movie-obsessed, baseball-crazed kid who loved football and salsa dancing, Dudamel also showed reasonable promise in the local El Sistema orchestra—although he is fond of saying now that he was a "terrible" violinist. But one afternoon, aged around 12, he did something that would change the course of his life. The conductor, Luis Giménez, was late to a rehearsal, so Dudamel grabbed the baton and began conducting his friends. "I remember very well how it felt to hold a baton for the first time," he tells me when we meet again in LA, a few days after the Beethoven concert. "Like the most natural thing in the world."
Photograph Jehad Nga
By the end of the rehearsal, Giménez had asked him to be his assistant; at 16, Dudamel had moved to Caracas to study with José Antonio Abreu, the visionary petroleum economist and conductor who created and still oversees El Sistema; and at 18 he was named music director of El Sistema’s flagship, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
"It was an incredible raw talent," says Sir Simon Rattle, one of the first Europeans to see Dudamel in action when the "Bolívars" visited Berlin in 2003. Himself once a curly-haired wunderkind, Rattle is principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, widely rated as the finest orchestra in the world. "Everything was too loud and everything was too fast, and I loved it," he tells me from Berlin. "He played one after another of my least favourite pieces, and everything had something special. I was excited and moved by all of them."
Astonished by this "quite uncanny physical gift—a kind of gut instinct and emotional communication which is just very unusual", Rattle invited Dudamel to watch him at work in Berlin and Salzburg. Dudamel chuckles as he looks back on that moment now. "I don’t know how I communicated with Simon, my God, in that time. I tried to interpretate all of what he was saying to me and sometimes I was wrong! And he would be like, 'But Gustavo, no…!' "
Shortly afterwards, Dudamel headed home to Caracas. He had been entered into the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, taking place a few weeks later in Bamberg, Germany, but after two months away, was looking, he remembers, "for the most stupid excuse to not go. Like, 'oh, I have a pain in my finger!' Something like that. But in the end, Maestro Abreu told me: 'treat it as an experience, a great human and musical experience'."
Abreu had never intended El Sistema to be a music conservatoire churning out professional conductors. Now frail but fiery at 73, he stresses when we meet in Caracas that the primary aim has always been social transformation. Music education is merely the vehicle, and success stories like Dudamel—and the generation coming up behind him, including Christian Vásquez and Diego Matheuz, both of whom, at 28, now head major European orchestras—are simply happy by-products of the social programme. El Sistema’s government funding (about 90% of operating budget) comes from the social-services department, not the culture purse; the indices used to measure it are social, educational and financial. A 2007 study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that every dollar invested in El Sistema returned $1.68.
So Dudamel flew back to Germany, still without a word of English. "I was like, 'OK, I will have fun'—that was my first thought," he tells me. "I thought, 'whatever happens here, it’s not a problem. I have my life in Venezuela, my orchestra I am conducting. This is just an experience.'"
On May 1st 2004, without a day of formal training to his name, or any experience of conducting outside Venezuela, Dudamel entered the final round of the Mahler Competition against an array of conservatoire-educated Europeans and Asians. And won. That night, insiders reeled, phones rang, and his name became a buzzword.
"I remember very clearly the first time I heard his name," Deborah Borda recalls. "Esa-Pekka Salonen [then music director of the LA Phil] called me…He was a judge at the Mahler, and he said, 'Deborah? This 23-year-old Venezuelan guy just won the competition, I’ve never seen anything like it! You have to see him, he’s a real conducting animal!' Well, Esa-Pekka and I knew each other well enough that when he said something at that level of intensity, I knew it was pretty important…I decided it was worth taking a risk and asking him to make his American debut. He didn’t even have a manager."
Borda, now 63, is a canny customer. After running the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 2000, she has overseen the transformation of the LA Phil into one of music’s most dynamic institutions (and, in an age of crippled symphony orchestras, the wealthiest, with a budget of $110m). She is one of the world’s highest-paid music executives, earning $1.6m in 2010-11. But she had never taken such a punt on anyone. And when she did finally see Dudamel on the podium? "I thought they had underestimated him. The Germans have a word for it: Jahrhunderttalent. Once in a hundred years. That was my immediate feeling. Once in a hundred years."
A MONTH LATER, another election is taking place, this time in America, and Dudamel is in Milan. We arrange to meet for an espresso—he drinks a lot of espresso—at his hotel near La Scala, where that evening he will lead his first production of Verdi’s "Rigoletto". He is adored at La Scala as he is almost everywhere. A few years ago, his name was even in the mix—alarmingly, some felt, given his limited opera experience—to become its music director. Although that rumour turned out to be premature, he has persuaded the world’s grandest opera house to work with El Sistema and create an Opera Academy in Venezuela, serving hundreds of thousands of kids from the barrios.
Picture: Dudamel conducts “the BolÍvars” in the barrios near Caracas (Nohely Oliveros)
In jeans, a polo shirt and bowling shoes, Dudamel cuts a genial figure, far from the maestro stereotype. The first time we met, five years ago, he tried valiantly to teach me to salsa. Today he is warm and chatty over coffee, but distracted. Expected at La Scala for a last-minute rehearsal, he soon grabs my arm to cross the street in what he calls "the Italian way", dodging traffic and trams. On top of preparing for "Rigoletto", he reveals that he has spent the morning trying to finish writing the score to "Libertador", a Venezuelan film about Simón Bolívar, starring Edgar Ramírez from "Zero Dark Thirty" and directed by Dudamel’s friend Alberto Arvelo. Reputed to be the biggest South American film ever produced, "Libertador" has been called the South American "Braveheart" and is due to premiere at Cannes.
At first I wonder if I’ve heard him right. The prospect of Dudamel adding another dimension to his career is sufficient to send an ordinary head spinning. I’m reminded of a comment Frank Gehry made in LA when we discussed Dudamel’s tendency to perform most of his repertoire from memory. "I say to him, 'Dude, why are you doing that, are you trying to prove you’re King Kong or something?'"
Music director of two leading orchestras (in LA and Venezuela), Dudamel is also the de facto figurehead of hundreds of El Sistema ensembles and their int-ernational spin-offs, including Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and Big Noise in Scotland, which launched the London 2012 Festival with a massive open-air concert in Raploch. Last year he took four orchestras on tours across three continents, and was in demand with others as a guest artist who virtually guarantees a sell-out. The Vienna Philharmonic invited him to conduct the big event of their season, the outdoor Summer Night Concert at the Schönbrunn Palace. The Berlin Phil, Rattle tells me, "adore him" and feel "it is a huge privilege to work with him".
Back in LA, where he has renewed his contract until 2019, Dudamel is overseeing a bold programme at the Walt Disney, including a multi-disciplinary Mozart opera project bringing leading architects from Gehry to Zaha Hadid together with fashion brands including Rodarte and Azzedine Alaïa. In New York in December, he served as artistic adviser to a huge Carnegie Hall festival with the Bolívars; this spring he and the LA Phil hold a residency at the Barbican in London, where they will present a fully staged version of a new John Adams opera, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary".
Then there is the philanthropic foundation that Dudamel and his wife, the Venezuelan journalist and former dancer Eloísa Maturén, have launched in order to expand the philosophy of El Sistema—simply put: that art can transform lives—into other areas, including a literacy programme. (Both are avid readers, according to Eloísa. When I ask Dudamel which book he’s got on the go, he pulls out a volume of short stories by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar; in his office in LA I spot volumes of history, politics and philosophy, including Aristotle and Nietzsche—later, he assures me: "It’s not that I’m trying to be intellectual. I read because I love to read. I just don’t read before I go to sleep as I get so excited!") The Dudamels have a toddler, Martín, and are proudly hands-on parents. "Because of course the baby needs his father," Eloísa insists. In New York, the chubby-cheeked Martín is a hit when, dressed in a Yankees outfit, he accompanies Eloísa to Carnegie Hall to see his dad rehearse; the music stops and many members of the orchestra whip out their phones to take pictures. "And not only watching him conduct and rehearsing, but for Gustavo to be available to him," Eloísa adds, wryly. "Gustavo comes from a family with very strong values. That’s important to me and it’s very important to Gustavo too."
Many conductors lead hectic lives, but Dudamel’s is off the scale. His 2012 was "the single most audaciously ambitious year ever attempted by a conductor", according to the veteran LA Times music critic Mark Swed, who also points out that "by year’s end he could look back at the kind of coveted big-time gigs, constant output of recordings and visibility that eminent conductors work a lifetime for yet rarely achieve".
"I’ve seen his schedule," Simon Rattle says, "and I do not see how he has time to breathe."
So why a film score on top of everything else, I ask, as we round a corner onto the Via dei Filodrammatici. And why now, King Kong? "Look, people think that I’m crazy, to do all these things," Dudamel admits with a smile, as we evade another tram. "But I’m doing this film because it is a project of life, you know? Alberto is my brother, and I am proud to be part of it. It is a new world for me, it gives me another vision of music."
He has always loved the movies. "When I was a teenager, I had a friend and we were dreaming to write film music. I remember when we saw 'Jurassic Park', we were flipping! We were like, 'oh my God!' We came back to our house and were trying to write music for the movie we had in our VHS! So now that I have the chance to do this, it’s a beautiful challenge."
Picture: Dudamel with (L-R) his boss at the LA Phil, Deborah Borda; his wife, Eloísa Maturén; the composer John Williams; the jazz musician Herbie Hancock; and the architect Frank Gehry (Matthew Imaging)
Some critics feel that Dudamel is spreading himself too thin. Is he at all concerned how they might react? "Your life doesn’t have to be the same as other people," he contests. "So, sometimes people think 'OK, Dudamel will not go deeply in the conducting because he doesn’t have the time, or he’s doing too much,' or whatever they think. Well, they have the right to think that, but for me, for me, and I’m the one living this life, it’s the way how I think I have to develop...I was thinking at one time to try and make everybody happy. And it’s impossible!"
Writing the film score, he says, has been "an Everest. I have learned a lot, and am learning more and more—musically, about life, about everything. It’s really exciting." But does he expect to be credibly viewed as a composer now, too? "No! I’m not trying to be a modern composer, or Beethoven or Mahler. I’m not writing anything as a classical composer to play in a venue like this—" we are approaching La Scala. "I am only putting little things to help. My idea of what a note or what a harmony or a rhythm can give. The musical vision is very simple." At the stage door he hesitates, and I spot a few renegade grey streaks in the black curls. "I am saying: don’t expect from me anything."
I wonder if he’s joking. Classical music, facing something of an existential crisis as audiences age and dwindle, record sales decline and more popular art forms push it ever closer to the wings of modern life, has not had an ambassador of such magnetism since Leonard Bernstein. The burden of expectation placed on "the Dude" has been heavy ever since that night in Bamberg. A few hours later, a tremor of undignified expectation ripples through the stalls of La Scala when Dudamel appears in the orchestra pit, resplendent in white tie and tails. Into the hushed silence comes a cry from a gilded crimson box high above: "Bravo, Gustavo!" And again, louder: "Bravo, Gustavo!" Dudamel has not even raised his baton.
BY THE TIME the curtain comes down on "Rigoletto", the American election results are filtering in. As the well-heeled Milanese clamour for an autograph at the stage door, I’m reminded that Dudamel has also been described as the "Obama of classical music". Even John Adams, the celebrated composer who has worked with Dudamel in his role as creative chair for the LA Phil, was unable to resist the analogy when I spoke to him in California. "There is nobody like him, he will be one of a kind," Adams had said, but cautioned: "Gustavo’s done an enormous amount and he’s extremely exposed. It’s like Barack Obama and his first term in office: not everything is perfect. And you know, when you get that much attention, obviously people are going to hold you to an extremely high standard."
The reflexive "Dudamania" of the kind seen at La Scala and across the world has provoked a backlash, irritating those classical critics who struggle with the idea that a serious conductor can work on a blockbuster movie in the morning and conduct Verdi in the evening. Some wonder if Dudamel is an over-hyped media sensation whose charisma sucks attention away from other gifted young conductors. A few months before Dudamel collected America’s highest classical honour, Musical America’s Musician of the Year award, Andrew Clark, writing in the Financial Times, compared him unfavourably to conductors he had seen in the 1970s and 1980s, and described the experience of Dudamel conducting Beethoven as "lightweight". In 2010 the San Francisco critic Joshua Kosman called Dudamel’s tour with the LA Phil "a head-spinning mass of puzzlements", while his Chicago counterpart John von Rhein detected a lack of "depth" and Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was caustic: "Part of the job description for a music director at a major American orchestra involves fostering the technical skills of the players and giving assured, fresh performances of works in the central repertory. In this regard, [the] concert was a disappointment."
It is one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets that both the Chicago Symphony and New York Philharmonic were, to quote one well-placed American observer, "desperate…falling over themselves to get Dudamel" before the LA Phil snapped him up. "Now," the same person adds, "they’ve got their cannons trained on him." Dudamel himself remains philosophical. "People have the right to think whatever they want to think," he insists. "The whole point of music is you have a vision of what you like...I can go to a concert maybe I will not like, but another person can react in a different way, and that is the beauty of our art. I love that."
He is far more troubled by the idea—often perpetuated from within—that classical music is the preserve of an elite. As if these pieces are like fine wine the rest of us can’t taste. Borda says he is "a really unique leader, able to command people, but in a communal way...[Unlike the] many conductors who say, 'this is the law, this is what’s going to happen,' [Dudamel] is philosophically incapable of being a despot." He rejects outright the idea that audiences must come furnished with expertise, or dress up, or behave a certain way. He is delighted when they clap between movements of a symphony, a move much sneered upon by aficionados; he loves to hear that people are enjoying themselves.
El Sistema is often described as a miracle for its social impact. Venezuela today has thousands of doctors, teachers and civil servants who are El Sistema graduates and whose impoverished childhoods in the barrios might not have augured such careers. But on a visit to Venezuela last year, it struck me that the real miracle might be the way, in a country with little tradition of classical music and even less affection for the dead white European males who created it, El Sistema has made this music as central to the culture as pop or even Latin music. With 2m El Sistema alumni, audiences for classical concerts are huge, and Dudamel is mobbed wherever he goes. Youngsters strut through the barrios on the way to orchestra practice at the local nucléo, carrying their instrument cases as American kids carry Nintendos. Parents, cousins, aunts, uncles of El Sistema students whistle melodies from Mahler and Tchaikovsky at home. Just as the blues, jazz and hip-hop were musical genres that originated among the poor before spreading up the social ladder, the Venezuelan example has proved that music can easily go the other way.
Picture: “Don Giovanni” at the Walt Disney, designed by Gehry, who felt he and Dudamel didn’t have enough time together
"Look, times change," Dudamel declares. "People have to understand that. Some people think that classical music has to be for an elite. Still, people think like that! That this music is for an amount of people. And how you can be thinking in that way in the 21st century? How you can think that a teenager cannot play Mahler or Beethoven? Of course, you cannot conduct Mahler when you are 16 in the same way as a 50- or 60-year-old, but who say you have only to conduct Mahler when you are 50?" He is as exercised as I have ever seen him. "You think you cannot play a classical concert for 20,000 people, 30, 40, even 100,000 people? Who say? People are like, 'Oh, Dudamel, he’s crazy—oh, classical music cannot be for everybody because that’s not the conception of classical music.' Oh yes? Who say that it’s not the conception of classical music? Where is in a book these 'rules' of classical music? I want to imagine Mozart seeing a huge orchestra, a huge audience: I think he would be very happy to see his music being played for a thousand or million people!"
A million might be pushing it, but at a concert with the Panamanian pop star Rubén Blades at a Caracas airfield last year, Dudamel faced an audience of 220,000. He says he loves "all kinds of music" (what’s on his iPod right now? "Pink Floyd, recorded live in Pompeii"), and it’s not a drastic step for him to imagine a future in which classical audiences expand as fast as they have in his country. In the West, the notion that any music—let alone classical—might actually transform a human life is still likely to be met with dogged cynicism; unlike Venezuela, we have no metric for measuring such things. Dudamel is convinced otherwise.
"Classical music…is such a powerful element that life has given us, to express and to feel," he says. "Music is universal, everybody understands what it’s about. But first you have to go to the community—the real community. The people that doesn’t have access to [classical music] have to feel that this thing is close to them. And many people will say: 'but why? It’s not right. To bring classical music to the community is not the reason of classical music.' We have to change that mentality!
"It’s like, when you play a concert, let’s say in a park, where the people can go and listen and see it and say, 'oh, wow!' Maybe they will enjoy classical music the next time. And I’m not saying they will then go every time to the concert hall and will become obsessed, no, but they will have an idea of what it’s about. And they will feel connected, even if they are not subscribers who go all the time. And when people really feel that music can be part of their lives, things do change. And that is the most beautiful thing. But still, people are thinking in that way, thinking that classical music cannot be for everybody!" He gives an incredulous laugh.
"With all due respect for purist people, if we go in that way we will kill classical music, it will disappear. We have to give people access, to increase our audience in numbers, to have more people coming and letting them to see and feel classical music and enjoy it. Things have to change, and change for better, because if not? Forget about classical music. If not, classical music, in two or three or ten years, will die."
ON AUGUST 23rd 2007, the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not known for its hyperbolic tendencies, ran a breathless headline wondering: "Was this the greatest Prom of all time?" Footage from the concert in question, showing Dudamel and the Bolívars performing "Mambo!" from Leonard Bernstein’s "West Side Story", has since been viewed nearly half a million times on YouTube. The teenaged players, to the stunned delight of a 5,000-strong audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London, ditch their dinner jackets for tracksuit tops in the colours of the Venezuelan flag, jump to their feet, fool about with their instruments and generally give the impression that playing in a symphony orchestra is the greatest gig imaginable.
Among those who received a link to that video was Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard. "I clicked on it thinking, 'oh, this is one of those Facebook things' and just fell into my screen," she says when we meet in New York. "I thought, 'who are these people, where is this energy coming from?' I never thought I would again have those chills in a concert that I used to get watching my Dad conduct. And then I thought, 'where is my Dad to see it all, because this is everything he ever meant.'
"He would have gone down there, to Venezuela, in a shot. He would have crushed every rib in Gustavo’s body with the hug, and he would have been in awe of Maestro Abreu. He would have been beside himself with excitement." Soon after viewing the viral clip, Jamie herself headed down to Caracas—"because I started finding out about El Sistema and I thought, 'this is way too good to be true'."
That is an accusation frequently levelled at Dudamel and El Sistema. "I don’t blame people for being cynical," nods Bernstein, who admits to being "astounded" by what she subsequently discovered in Venezuela. "On the face of it, it does all sound way too much. But it is a marvel. Against all odds...it’s kind of imponderable that El Sistema took hold."
It is precisely this imponderability, though, that disturbs some observers, especially those who see a contradiction between the policies of Chávez and the positive message of El Sistema’s success. In the London Times in October, the leading Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, a friend and collaborator of Dudamel’s who now lives in Boston, described El Sistema as "a beautiful flower among ruins, a nucleus of brilliant, talented people used by the government to project an image of equality and social welfare". On Dudamel’s resolute silence about politics, Montero added: "I wish he’d speak up, of course I do, but he’s in a tough position. He’s a figurehead, but if you see brutality you should say something."
Picture: Dudamel and the BolÍvars at the Albert Hall in 2007, flying the Venezuelan flag and racking up the views on YouTube (Getty)
Dudamel, who describes himself to me as a "Pangloss", is unruffled when I put Montero’s comments to him: in the Venezuela he is looking at and living in, he sees not brutality but hope. If El Sistema is a flower, as Montero has it, then wherever it takes root, he reckons, this must be positive. "Gabriela is a very good friend of mine…She has her way to think, and that is right," he says. "[But] I don’t think like that. I live in Venezuela, I spend a lot of time there because it’s my country." Pressed about the grievous crime rate, he argues that this is all the more reason why initiatives like El Sistema are vital. "The crime…is something that you live [with], but it’s not the only face of Venezuela. I hate when people put that in the first level when they speak about my country. Venezuela has always been a very crazy but beautiful country, and many things beautiful are happening—why we don’t talk about that?"
Such negativity, Dudamel goes on, is indicative of a wider attitude that needs addressing. "We are living in a world where people are seeing only the bad things and not the good things," he argues. "And then we will destroy this world we are living in! I am a very happy person, I am an optimist, I believe that we are living in the most beautiful world. But we have to change things. We have to think how we are building, because all the time we are building the world, you know? Every citizen has to be aware, and engaged, and build the best not only for his country but for the world. And in Venezuela, with Sistema, we are building something."
Some insiders expected Dudamel, as his star rose, to grow out of El Sistema and focus on international engagements instead—to choose the glamour and the lucre. But they were misjudging what drives him. "Building my life in music, conducting the big orchestras in the world, is something very important to me, of course," he concedes. "But El Sistema is my family and I will be always there for it, for my brothers and my sisters. It’s something that will never change."
Eloísa confirms this from Caracas, where she is working on what Dudamel describes as "thousands of ideas" for their foundation. "People ask me if Gustavo will ever leave Venezuela," she says, "and something that I know for sure, I could die tomorrow and I would know, is that Gustavo will be 80 years old and he will be conducting in Venezuela. I could write it with blood, anywhere.
"Growing up in Sistema, he has seen so many people who’ve had the chance to change their life through music and that’s something that speaks to you, that changes your life too. We have talked about it many times, and he always says, 'The only thing I want is for someone else to have the chance I had.' "
FROM SOUTH AMERICA to North America to Europe and back, I have seen Dudamel at work, at play, at rehearsals both intimate and epic, sharing concert platforms with international stars and over-excited kids. The hair may be greying, but the energy never fades. Talking to his colleagues, friends, family, teachers, his manager, his employers and his critics, I have struggled to find a single person, even off the record, who says they’ve seen him on a bad day. It strains credulity that a man possessed of such gifts could be so well liked. "That’s one of the miraculous things," Simon Rattle says. "There isn’t really anything negative to say about Gustavo…This is one of the most loved artists I’ve seen in my lifetime."
Deborah Borda shrugs. "He is real. I told you: once in a hundred years. It’s real, and people can’t believe it’s real." She adds, drily: "For some reason, it’s very difficult, especially in classical music, for people to accept a positive story."
Eloísa Dudamel, used to cynical outsiders wondering if her husband isn’t a little too good to be true, laughs. "Gustavo is the same person I met nine years ago with the same, I wouldn’t say simpleness, but it’s something…He can be happy with really pretty small things, and that’s something that hasn’t changed over these years…Of course he worries about his family, his friends, El Sistema, whatever he’s needed for. And he gets mad with people who lie to him. That’s the one thing he’s really not good with. But in general, he is really optimistic. He always sees the glass half-full. He’s really fascinated by people. And not only his friends and his family, who he is infinitely attached to, but people in general." She pauses. "The thing about Gustavo is he just really loves people."
I ask him if he feels any tension between his old life and his new one. "It is such an important thing, to have your friends there with you," he says. "When they feel that your feets are going up, they take you down!" For once, the laughter is tempered by wistfulness. "With my friends, I see the past, and from where I’m coming, and that is something very important that sometimes you don’t see because you are inside of a wave—whooph, all the time. [Every] morning, you know, I have to conduct here, I have to learn a new piece, I have to do this…But I really feel that I’m the same guy with the same ideas. Time has passed but I don’t see changes; I try to do the same things." This Rolex-sponsored, Grammy-winning, bodyguard-requiring millionaire gives a smile that makes it hard not to believe him. "Sometimes I still feel like I’m the little kid, playing the violin, conducting the orchestra and playing baseball or football in the square."
WHEN DUDAMEL WAS little, his grand-father Honorio, a truck driver, would show up at the apartment in Barquisimeto on a Friday, after a week or longer on the road. "And he would say, 'prepare your suitcase with anything that you want,'"Dudamel, who shares his grandfather’s love of driving, tells me over a drink in LA. "Sometimes he said, 'take all your toys. Or take your shirts.' And then I was in the back of the car and I ask, ‘but Grandpa, where are we going?’ And he said, ‘wherever the bonnet of the car take us.' Sometimes we were travelling half an hour just to get something to eat, and then we go back. Or sometimes we went six hours to another city. Like to Merida, we went a lot, and sleeping in the car, or a house we found to sleep in. It was amazing—it was the adventure to do things. And that is the way my life is."
He has achieved so much, with so little visible damage, that you wonder where that sense of adventure might take him next. The giant poster of his face outside the Walt Disney screams "Limitless", but nobody has no limits. Still, his restless curiosity—what Eloísa describes as his love of "paying attention"—seems unassailable. When I ask Frank Gehry why, at 83 and in demand around the world, he has agreed to work with Dudamel on a double concert-hall for El Sistema in Barquisimeto, he replies: "Because it’s the Dude, and he asked!"
Prodded on what it is actually like to work with Dudamel, Gehry admits to a few concerns. "I’m hoping that with Barquisimeto, he will focus with me. We might have to go to some island somewhere where the telephone doesn’t ring."
Picture: Sir Simon Rattle, one of the first people to spot Dudamel's raw talent (Reuters)
Last year they collaborated on an ambitious "Don Giovanni" at the Walt Disney, which had mixed reviews. "I’m a lot the same," confesses Gehry, who designed the sets. "Our appetite is bigger than our ability to spend time on something. And so a lot of this stuff doesn’t get to be refined. That’s what I felt was missing for me. I really wanted to say: 'ok now, Gustavo, when Leporello enters the scene, the music is different than when Don Giovanni enters the scene. That’s obvious in the music but how do I present that?' Because it’s rich with those subtleties, and, not being a musician, I couldn’t articulate those, but I could feel them. And so I felt that there could be a richer presentation of 'Don Giovanni'…And with Gustavo, when I opened that door he went right in! I felt there was the beginning of a crazy rich partnership of music and architecture that could come together in an amazing way. And he got all excited, and he was going to find those spots for me. It became an instant dream, I left that meeting flying. But then we never could meet again. We could never spend the time to do it."
This echoes John Adams’ concern when I ask about "The Gospel According to the Other Mary". He says the director, the legendary Peter Sellars, wanted "to have Gustavo at piano rehearsals, not just orchestra rehearsals. Peter has very complex and subtle ideas that can’t be communicated in any other way than just being there with singers and a pianist. You need your conductor there. And Gustavo’s schedule is just non-stop…I don’t think he ever anticipated that Peter Sellars is the kind of director who needs seven weeks of rehearsal just to stage something. I’m sure Gustavo would give it to him if he had it, but he’s already booked up to the gills, so we’re having to either work around that or see if there’s any way we can break out a few days in his schedule." And Adams is not just thinking about the production. "I think it would be an experience that would deeply enrich him," he argues, "being able to spend that much time working with an artist like Peter."
When it comes to the dangers of the "unbelievable fast-track rollercoaster" Dudamel is on, the frankest warnings come from his first and perhaps greatest fan. "It would be a real shame if Gustavo remained a wonderful young conductor," Simon Rattle says. "What he’s done so far has been a complete miracle. There aren’t any limitations. But he’s now of the age where he has to become one of the greats. And to reach what he is capable of, he will have to give himself time and space to reflect and grow, and that will be the hardest thing for him. It won’t just happen by doing lots of fantastic, thrilling concerts all over the world endlessly…He has a whole lot of mountains to climb."
Does he worry that Dudamel is reluctant to climb them? "Gustavo is the absolute antithesis of a self-satisfied musician," he says, "and God help me, he conducts basically the entire repertoire better than I did at his age. But I think that the next step is a giant one, and it requires taking time and being quiet and thinking and delving and giving himself the opportunity to explore more, make mistakes more. It will actually require the courage to step back. So the problem is, he needs to do exactly the opposite of what he’s done so far."
I’m reminded of something Jamie Bernstein hinted at when we discussed the comparisons between Dudamel and her father. "My Dad really struggled with the machine issue, and I don’t think he entirely escaped its deleterious effects," she admitted. "Looking back on his life now, I’m thinking that the pressure was so enormous—and he put it on himself, too, he always out-performed himself, out-composed himself, and I think he drove himself crazy that way. If he were able to come down and talk to Gustavo now, maybe he would give him different advice than he might have given him in his lifetime."
I ask Rattle what heights Dudamel could scale if he does step back for a moment. "He will be one of the most important musicians of our time, without any doubt,"he answers. "Important musician, as opposed to conductor. Another level. He absolutely has that in there…He can transmit anything that he wants. So now it is for him to have more and more sophisticated and powerful and rounded and profound ideas to transmit, because immediately he will find a physical way of doing that…But he desperately needs to go and read some books and study harmony and structure again, not just with his instinct, but with his intellect."
Has he told Dudamel this? "Look, I’ve told him a lot." Rattle sounds like a father, loving but resigned. "And he’s very good at not quite listening. He hears what he wants to hear."
In December, shortly before he arrives in New York for the Carnegie Hall residency, I call Dudamel at home in Venezuela. He is preparing to conduct Beethoven again—the Ninth Symphony, this time, which he first performed at 17. Going over his old score, which bears the pencil markings of so many years, he tells me he has also been reading widely around the symphony. Whether or not he is cultivating the sophisticated ideas Rattle wants, Dudamel seems to have no shortage of thoughts about this colossal work. He has been thinking hard, he assures me, when I raise Rattle’s concerns, about how to re-approach the piece from a technical standpoint and how to "build a complete line from the first note to the end". After a fairly involved musicological discussion, he turns to the more philosophical and emotional elements of the piece. Suddenly Dudamel’s exhilaration comes crackling down the line, all the way from Caracas to London. Beethoven’s Ninth contains the "Ode to Joy", with its verse:
Joy, daughter of Elysium
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted;
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.
It is widely accepted that Beethoven believed in this dream of united brotherhood—probably as unfashionable then as it is now—and Dudamel is unashamedly moved by it too. "I would love, one day, to see all of us embracing each other!" he declares. "It’s an ought-to-be but it’s a beautiful ought-to-be, thinking that all of us—all the world, if you have any political idea, any religion, whatever differences you have, any economic condition, any kind of race that you are—we all ought to be embracing each other. We don’t have to think in the same way as each other. We only have to respect and understand each other. That is a dream that I have."
For this self-confessed Pangloss, so defiantly open to the possibility of joy, the "adventure of life" is still there for the making. "Maybe it sounds like a romantic and stupid dream. But really, I believe that day will be the change."
After a moment, Dudamel laughs. "It’s simple. We just have to let the bonnet of the car take us."
LA Philharmonic/Dudamel Barbican, London, March 13th-17th
See also: Tim de Lisle on Waiting for Gustavo