Classical music's newly-appointed messiah would rather stick to being a maestro.
Mon May 17 2010
“The funny thing is that this is not something I was looking for,” Gustavo Dudamel explains, speaking from his office at the Los Angeles Philharmonic while multitasking on a Saturday afternoon. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s famous successor is, of course, talking about his hair. Astonishing technique and unabashed enthusiasm aside, the young Venezuelan conductor has a calling card in his slick, black curls, which he tosses around like a classically trained Steven Tyler. Yet famous though his locks may be, they’re one of the few markings of his career that weren’t deliberate. “It was in 2004: I didn’t have time to cut my hair, and the hair was growing, growing, growing. And then...you know? Okay.”
Dudamel’s salon habits (or lack thereof) are tantamount to his intense focus on his craft, which was developed in Venezuela’s publicly funded music program, El Sistema. Doubtlessly the best-known alumnus of the program—no mean feat with more than 300,000 students—Dudamel, 28, turns from charmingly effusive to hushed and reverent when discussing the program. “The Sistema is my family. It was the program that gave me the opportunity to be what I am,” he says. “And now I’m trying to show the masses [that] through music we can have a better community, a better society, like what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Unsurprisingly, Dudamel’s enthusiasm has led many to regard him as the savior of classical music. Even his initials (“G.D.”) have divine bearings. However, he is less interested in being a messiah than he is in simply being a maestro. “That was cool,” he says with a laugh when reminded of his already legendary opening-night concert with the L.A. Phil. In the weeks leading up to it, Dudamania took over Los Angeles. Bienvenido Gustavo!, a daylong musicfest at the Hollywood Bowl, culminated with Dudamel leading his orchestra in Beethoven’s iconic Symphony No. 9. And the literal red carpet was rolled out five days later for the Phil’s first concert of the season at Walt Disney Concert Hall (which featured the world premiere of John Adams’s City Noir and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1).
Cool though it may have been, Dudamel emphasizes that the attention he earned was ultimately paid to the music—he’s simply happy to be the conduit. “Everything is through the music,” he says emphatically. “We have to give the message that music is important—is important for the arts, is important for the future of a country, is important for a society—because it brings sensitivity to the people who listen. It’s not important because of Gustavo Dudamel the individual person.”
Embarking on his first tour with the orchestra, Dudamel reprises his maiden voyage with the L.A. Phil at Avery Fisher Hall on Saturday 22. The orchestra will also play Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” (featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet), and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathtique,” on Thursday 20. (Both concerts are sold out, but there are still seats to be had for a Friday 21 concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, to feature the Bernstein and Mahler works.) Like Los Angeles, New York is an ethnically and culturally diverse metropolis, one that welcomed Alan Gilbert as the music director of its own Philharmonic mere weeks before Dudamel took the podium in L.A. for the first time as his orchestra’s music director. Many insiders hope that Dudamel’s presence on the classical scene will bring in a wider range of audiences—particularly his fellow Latin Americans, who make up sizable portions of both cities’ populations. Cross-cultural relations do factor into Dudamel’s philosophy. “That is, of course, very important,” he says, “and I feel very proud of all the people of Latin America—because I’m Latin American.”
Still, Dudamel is less concerned with demographics than he is with bringing people together. “This is the thing: The main message is that we are one, and living wherever we are living,” he explains. “If an Argentinian is living in Venezuela or a Colombian is living in Mexico, a Bolivian is living here, we are one.... I think it’s beautiful when you see you don’t need words, you only need notes. That experience is the reason why we are musicians.”