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A Rare Genius

What makes a great conductor? One music critic assesses the career of Gustavo Dudamel

As Gustavo Dudamel looks out over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only his eyes are in motion. They settle briefly on the faces of each of his 100 musicians. There is a moment of charged silence, a collective inhalation. Then he raises his baton with the life-or-death urgency of a rocket pilot just before liftoff. His face, his mien, his whole body seem to be saying, “I am going to take you on an adventure.” No matter how often the orchestra members may have played this piece before, Dudamel’s bearing indicates that this performance really matters, that there are truths yet to be disclosed.

Suddenly his hands come to life. The baton in his right slices through the air, dividing the score into beats and patterns. His left—fluid, graceful—shapes the tone and soul of the playing. In softer passages he holds the ensemble back with carefully restrained, exacting gestures that permit only small fractions of sound to escape into the recesses of Disney Hall. In more lyrical and expansive sections he relaxes visibly, leans back, swings his arms as though to embrace a cosmos. After a particularly beautiful solo, Dudamel beams at the performer with delight. Watching him is like reading a map of the score.

Yes, his long, curly hair can sometimes bounce around like a sideshow. But for all his youthful energy and enthusiasm, the 30-year-old music director of the L.A. Phil is not playing to the audience. This is not the classical music equivalent of air guitar: Dudamel knows that most of the work behind any successful concert has already been accomplished in rehearsal, as passages are played again and again, started, stopped, and polished until they shine. Now his duty is sending “real time” signals to his musicians, not dancing for the crowd.

Dudamel never wants for authority. He has been leading orchestras since he was a teenager and has been world famous for more than a quarter of his life. Still, his abiding emotion seems to be one of gratitude—to the players for their efforts, to the composer for the music, and to life itself for what the poet Philip Larkin once called “the million-petalled flower of being here.” He is patient, considerate, and inspirational. He cajoles, coaxes, summons, and surprises his musicians into what seems a true collaboration, in which the conductor and players are symbiotic, mutually appreciative of the gifts the others bring.

What defines a great conductor? There have been some—Leonard Bernstein, for one—who appeared to be caught in the grip of primal ecstasy for most of their time onstage. Others, such as the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, have led their orchestras with the brisk, dispassionate efficiency of a bank teller counting change. Some fine conductors are austerely cerebral, some are pure spirit. It is a quirky, deeply personal art.

Nevertheless, there are ties that bind. Great conductors embody the highest virtues of shaman, athletic coach, psychologist, and traffic cop. It is their job to plan the program, inspiring the musicians to do their best, individually and collectively, and then to synchronize the players so they don’t collide. A conductor sets tempos, keeps the beat going, decides how loudly or softly a passage will be played, and seeks to communicate the composer’s wishes (and his or her own) to a group of virtuosos that often exceeds 100 men and women.

A great conductor understands all aspects of an orchestra, from the trill of the piccolo to the boom and heft of the gigantic double bass. Every musician has a part to play, but some are kept busier than others. A violinist will likely perform throughout a concert; the harpist may wait half an hour just to strum a few chords and then settle back to wait some more. Those who have mastered the percussion family are in a class by themselves: They maneuver among dozens of different hammered instruments, from tiny bells and finger cymbals to timpani and maybe an anvil. The piano sometimes is said to be a percussion instrument—and there are pianists who play it that way.

All of these instruments and more were onstage last autumn, when Dudamel led the L.A. Phil in the Turangalîla Symphonie by the French organist, composer, and mystic Olivier Messiaen. This is a crazy piece. Ten movements, millions of notes, and 100 minutes long, assembled as though with LEGOs, it calls to mind an unholy mix of Richard Wagner and a sci-fi movie score—“Tristan und Godzilla,” as it were. The symphony combines electronic keyboards and exotic percussion with a huge traditional ensemble and, like much of Messiaen, it is regularly performed in single, lustrous movements (notably the “Garden of Love’s Sleep”) rather than in its entirety. But Dudamel’s rendition of the complete symphony was as wild eyed and certifiably mad as the composer might have been when in the grip of creation. It was hard not to laugh with delight at the sheer audacity of Messiaen’s aural vision, which has never sounded so Hollywood, so full of fantasy and over-the-top emotionalism. It seems that Dudamel, who made his reputation in one of South America’s most exuberant cities, Caracas, Venezuela, feels at home here.

To be sure, on one of those afternoons when fiery sun competes with steady breeze, there are parts of Los Angeles that evoke Caracas—the quaking palm fronds, the incessant traffic, the hole-in-the-wall eateries behind hand-lettered Spanish signs, with their salsa music and the aroma of sizzling churros, sausages, and empanadas permeating the streets.

Caracas has suffered through terrible troubles in the last few decades: political repression from the right and the left, a gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots, and an ever-accelerating crime rate that makes the city, by some reckonings, one of the most dangerous places in the world. Yet the warmth of its residents, their pride in their culture, the fecundity and beauty of the natural setting, and the pulsating energy of the street life inspire a lasting affection. Those of us who love Venezuela are grateful for any good news we can find—and Dudamel is good news indeed.

 

Gustavo Dudamel attended his first concert at the age of four. He remembers being impressed especially by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, with its long and aching violin solos. The piece’s colorful orchestration is somehow cinematic (even though it was written long before there was cinema); its descriptions of stormy seas are spot-on (in a good performance, one can almost feel the ocean spray). Both of Dudamel’s parents are former musicians—his father a trombonist, his mother a voice teacher—and they were delighted but not hugely surprised when their son still seemed lost in Scheherazade long after the program was over.

The place where he grew up—Barquisimeto, a city between Caracas and Maracaibo that is the fourth largest in the country—had also been the childhood home of José Antonio Abreu, a violinist, conductor, and musical visionary who over the past 35 years has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans, none of them more than Gustavo Dudamel.

Now in his early seventies, Abreu is a former economist and politician whose first love has always been music. He founded El Sistema—the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela—in 1975 as a reaction to the poverty and social ills that surrounded him.

His devotees compare him to a secular saint, but Abreu is also a savvy player whose instincts helped El Sistema flourish almost from the beginning under the conservative regimes of the 1980s and ’90s. Today, under the even more unpredictable leftist Hugo Chavez, it has grown to encompass more than 150 orchestras for children and teens, offering instruction to roughly 100,000 students at a time, most of whom come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds. Dudamel is El Sistema’s most famous graduate.

He was five when he started in the program. Presented with a miniature violin, Dudamel showed such natural musicianship that he was soon studying with the leading string teachers in Caracas, rising at 3 a.m. to make the long trip once a week with his grandmother. In 1994, back in Barquisimeto, he began conducting his fellow orchestra members before their teacher would arrive; not long afterward he was appointed the group’s assistant conductor. Abreu himself heard Dudamel conduct Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in Barquisimeto and insisted on bringing him to Caracas for intensive work. Shortly thereafter Dudamel was named the music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the proverbial jewel in the crown of El Sistema into which only the most talented students in the nation are guided. He was 18 years old.

In 2004, Dudamel won the first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. The jury included the L.A. Phil’s music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who immediately placed a transatlantic call to Deborah Borda, the Phil’s president and chief executive officer. Borda would soon arrange for Dudamel to make his North American debut in September 2005.

From that moment Dudamel was on the ascent. Deutsche Grammophon signed him to a recording contract. Sir Simon Rattle, the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor from 1981 through 1993 and one of the first great musicians to recognize Dudamel’s abilities, called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across” and visited Caracas to conduct the Simón Bolívar orchestra. Dudamel conducted in Israel, London, Vienna, and San Francisco and became the principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. In April 2007, when Salonen announced his decision to step down from the L.A. Phil directorship at the end of the 2008-09 season, there wasn’t even the pretense of forming a search committee. Dudamel signed a five-year contract that has since been extended to 2019.

His tenure began with a free, sun-splashed celebration at the Hollywood Bowl, where after generous offerings of gospel, jazz, blues, and Cuban piano music (and once a shouting, stomping, standing ovation had died down), Dudamel led a stirring performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 that held his diverse audience in rapt silence for more than an hour. At the end of the marathon program, as fireworks over the Bowl spelled out “Bienvenido Gustavo!,” he joined all the players onstage, aloft on a tidal wave of applause. Then he addressed the crowd in English and Spanish. “This is a very special moment for my life…I’m very proud to be Latino, Venezuelan,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a South American. But I’m very proud to be American.”

In the years since, he has taken the L.A. Phil on tours of the United States and Europe, and the ensemble has begun to beam live orchestra performances to 400 movie theaters throughout North America, disseminating its music making to a large and geographically disparate audience while preserving it for posterity. Moreover, Dudamel has brought his own version of El Sistema to South Los Angeles, called Youth Orchestra L.A., which provides 200 young musicians with free instruments and group instruction. He led what was billed as an “open rehearsal” of the group at Disney Hall. Only 15 years ago, after all, in a city a few thousand miles southeast of here, Dudamel might have been one of the eager players himself.

The L.A. Phil’s 2011-12 season will be the envy of concertgoers in many other cities. It will include a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with staging by Paul Curran and sets by Frank Gehry (who also designed Disney Hall), and the world premiere of a lost opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. And Dudamel will conduct the Phil and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies as well as the “Adagio” from the unfinished Tenth. All this—and retaining ties to his Caracas orchestra—may sound daunting. But the job sustains Dudamel. “If you ask me if I’m nervous, I’m not nervous, never,” he told Bob Simon of 60 Minutes last year. “About music? No. It’s something that I need. It’s like the air. It’s like food. I need music.”

*****

Los Angeles got a preview of Dudamel’s Mahler cycle one Friday in early January when he took the stage at Disney Hall to lead the composer’s last finished symphony. It has been suggested that late Mahler is too profound for young conductors to grasp. I don’t agree: It seems to me that this is very much a young man’s idea of profundity—an outgrowth of the awful “oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die-someday” sensation that sometimes hits you after a keg party. Mahler is most effective when played straightforwardly, with the angst and lapel grabbing kept to a minimum.

Mahler’s Ninth is an especially hard composition to hold together, particularly if one approaches it as a piece of pure music, with direction and sweep, rather than as a vast, muddled philosophical rumination. To Dudamel’s credit, he built the symphony in a long arc—the huge opening andante comodo spacious but no more digressive than necessary, the second movement suffused with goofy charm, the scherzo furiously busy and busily furious, the finale taking on the pathos of an exhausted prayer.

When the last notes dissolved into the air, Dudamel refused to release us from our involvement with the music for the better part of a minute, holding his baton high, insisting that everything settle in. For that fraction of time the silence was as meaningful as the sounds had been—a musical statement in itself, glowing and transfigured by what had come before. Only when the conductor finally relaxed his shoulders were we free to breathe easily again. It was splendid drama.

The Phil’s playing is sometimes a mixed bag, in part because of what Dudamel inherited from his predecessor. Salonen was many things, most of them admirable, but he was not much of an orchestra builder, and one has the sense that the Phil could use a good full-body workout right now. Brass players love Mahler and will always dominate performances of his music if a conductor lets them. At the Mahler concert earlier this year, though, Dudamel kept them mostly in their not insignificant place. Yet the sounds they made were often coarse, and they sometimes seemed to be playing for themselves. At the moment the Phil can sound better player for player and section for section than as a unified whole.

But not always. One of the most affecting concerts I’ve heard from Dudamel couldn’t have been more orderly and well balanced. In a counterintuitive but surprisingly successful pairing, he combined two of Mozart’s last symphonies with Alban Berg’s plaintive, aching Violin Concerto (Gil Shaham was the excellent soloist). Because Mozart’s music is flowing, direct, and eloquent, many listeners think it must be easy to perform. Not so. Although almost any third-year piano student can read through some of the Mozart sonatas, it is a different matter entirely to play them well. Other composers demand more in terms of muscle, pyrotechnics, and flashy virtuosity, but there is an extraordinary transparency to Mozart’s music, and any imbalance, no matter how slight, is glaring. As such, the interpretation of Mozart remains one of the supreme tests of any great musician.

From the first notes of the so-called Prague Symphony, it was clear to me that Dudamel is an innate classicist, and that conviction only grew over the course of the afternoon. As he and his orchestra attacked the canon that concludes the Jupiter Symphony, I was struck: This was pristine, fresh, and tuneful Mozart with the dew still on it, led by a conductor close to the same age as the man who brought it into the world—even a little younger.

It has occasionally been said that Dudamel is not yet an immaculate technician, that he sometimes lets his enthusiasm exceed his control and he can be less attentive to detail than to the music’s overall sweep. Looking back over my more than 30 years as a professional music critic, I can’t think of any young conductor who hasn’t received such reviews. And Dudamel is especially young; at the end of his current contract he will be only 38, an age when most conductors are just getting started.

So there should be time aplenty to grow and perfect. In the meantime, if there are passing blemishes in a Dudamel concert, blemishes that a more restrained and conventional conductor might have avoided, his performances are inevitably shot through with something far more important—indeed, shot through with the essential virtue of great music making. They are always vigorously, unmistakably, triumphantly alive. And that’s water in the desert.
 
For more on Gustavo Dudamel, including video footage of a rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, click here
 
 

Photograph courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

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