Gustavo Dudamel: Playing Nicely
The Venezuelan-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel is on a mission to sow harmony, in the concert hall and beyond.
Gustavo Dudamel is a celebrated conductor and social activist, and the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the most innovative and acclaimed orchestras in the world. His accolades include a Grammy Award and a Gish Prize.
Born in Venezuela in 1981, he learned to play the violin through the country’s free El Sistema training program. He became assistant conductor of his youth orchestra at age 12 after picking up the baton when a teacher was late to class. By age 15, he was conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which began touring the world to enthusiastic reviews in 1999. He won the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004, became principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in 2006, and joined the LA Philharmonic as music director in 2008, at the age of just 28.
Renowned for his energetic and creative conducting, Dudamel is also a proponent of using music for social change. He played key roles in founding El Sistema branches in Sweden and Scotland and in creating YOLA, a youth orchestra that mentors children from underserved communities of Los Angeles.
On a spring day in 2019, the Venezuelan-born conductor and social activist, Gustavo Dudamel, is in Princeton, New Jersey preparing for a concert. It’s all part of a year-long artistic residency at the Ivy League school, but for most of the year, Dudamel and his wife, the Spanish actress Maria Valverde are based in southern California, where for the past decade he has served as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of America’s most forward-thinking orchestras. Gustavo Dudamel’s life has been shaped by music. Without it, he could not have become who he is today.
Gustavo Dudamel: Something that I remember all the time, and it comes to me, and it gives me this kind of bubbling feeling here in this place that we call soul, is that moment when I played the violin for the first time in an orchestra. That is always, I think every single day, I remember that. And I understood that my role was to serve to the music.
Dudamel is dedicated to serving not only the music but those who play and hear it and especially those whose lives can be changed by it. In Los Angeles, the Philharmonic’s community and education programs are the envy of the orchestral world. Since its founding in 2007, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, YOLA, has served thousands of young students across the city. In 2016, 100% of YOLA’s graduating class completed high school. 90% went to college. Among these successes is John Gonzales, who after eight years of the Youth Orchestra, is now studying bassoon at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore, but when he joined YOLA as a fifth-grader, he was just looking for something to do after school.
John Gonzales: One day my mom came home with a Gustavo Dudamel poster with like this Youth Orchestra, the YOLA application, and at first I was nervous. I really didn’t listen to classical music much. I didn’t even know, it wasn’t a thing for my family, like for a Latino family. We didn’t really listen to classical music. But I decided to give it a go, and we started off with recorders, we did like “Hot Cross Buns,” we did like little arrangements of big symphonies, like just the melody parts. And then Gustavo came like four weeks later, and that was a huge deal. At first, I didn’t know who he was, but I recognized him because he was the guy on this poster with like a big baton. Yeah, he kind of, I don’t know, it was just something about his vibe that made it like, his energy was just so big, and he was really passionate. He moves a lot. He’s just crazy, and you just like it. Like you just wanna move with him.
Gustavo Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela into a musical family. His father played salsa trombone. His mother was a voice teacher. But Dudamel likely never would have reached the heights he has as a conductor without the vision of an economist, musician, and politician named Jose Antonio Abreu. Abreu was an influential member of parliament who later became minister of culture. He used his powers to create El Sistema, an afterschool program that would eventually guarantee instruction in a musical instrument for every child in Venezuela. An enthusiastic organist and composer himself, Abreu believed that giving children, especially the poor, to play classical program, would also give them the real-world skills to improve their lives. El Sistema began with Abreu teaching just a handful of kids in his garage. Today, it is a worldwide phenomenon with programs in more than 50 countries, and Gustavo Dudamel as one of its most lauded successes. He and the program first came to international attention in 1999 when the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, the showcase ensemble for El Sistema, began touring internationally, with an 18-year-old Dudamel conducting. This was a deeply satisfying moment for Abreu, who remained dedicated to El Sistema until his death in 2018 at age 78.
Dudamel: He gave his life for the opportunity of many. And that is what he built. Many people at that time thought he was a crazy man doing this, but he conquered this dream.
AJC: There’s been a very severe regime change in your country in the last couple of years, and he’s gone. Is it possible that this will survive without him there to—
AJC: It will?
Dudamel: Completely, because the dream is alive. The thing is that yesterday I was in meetings with the orchestras, they are playing concerts in the middle of all of this mess, but still, the dream, the desire, the hope is there.
In 1999, Hugo Chavez came to power, and in short order rewrote the constitution to allow himself to remain as president of Venezuela in perpetuity. When he died in 2013, vice president Nicolas Maduro took over, and things quickly fell apart. Under Maduro, economic policies enacted by Chavez failed catastrophically, as oil prices collapsed. Inflation skyrocketed. Among those who have spoken out against Maduro’s regime is Gustavo Dudamel, who has not been back to his home country since being forced to take his wife’s Spanish citizenship in 2018, and though Maduro publicly disparaged the conductor for daring to comment on politics, in truth, Dudamel may be very well-placed to offer advice on conflict resolution. The Greek root of the word symphony means to agree, yet that’s often far from the reality of putting 100 plus musicians in a room and asking them to, as it were, play nicely, yet making great music relies on other unity, something Dudamel believes will also be necessary to the survival of his native country.
Dudamel: Even if we are in the middle of this moment, if we disagree, if there is unrest, this anger, I believe that it will be a place, it will be a moment where we encounter each other and through that, because it’s very important, to build a country, we need everyone, another part on the other. We need everyone. And acting as an orchestra maybe not being angry of an interpretation or something, we create an interpretation together, a version, we create harmony, and we create what symbolized how our country can work.
Back in LA, Dudamel is staying true to his word. He has built one of the world’s most successful El Sistema programs outside Venezuela. One of its most important lessons, go to where the need is.
Dudamel: We cannot expect for people only to come to us. We have to go to the community because it’s a little bit sometimes to everyone that okay, you come to me, and I give to you, but that’s it. No. I think the orchestra, the dynamic of the orchestra have changed, you know. Working with the chief of YOLA, creating these spaces, dreaming to have a place where these children can build a dream, like they build it, like we built it. So all of these actions that have been happening in the last ten years, arrived to this time with thousands of children. We hope, our dream is to multiply and to keep multiplying.
Construction is underway on YOLA’s new home, a 25,000 square foot Frank Gehry designed multipurpose venue that will become a hub for generations of students to learn the real-world skills that dedicated practice brings. But even without the perks of a fancy multi-million dollar building, alumnus John Gonzales has been forever changed by Gustavo Dudamel.
Gonzales: It makes me want to share with others what the passion for music I have, and basically just stick with me ever since he first conducted us. And the more I’ve been able to be conducted by him, the more my passion for music grows and really makes me want to continue doing this.
Gustavo Dudamel has achieved much success and brought real change to many, but remains committed to constant growth, both in his life and in his music-making.
Dudamel: We have to understand things, to not be perfect, but to be special. That is something unique. I think we discover ourselves all the time that we are doing something, and that is something that I want to keep, and I think, and I keep for my personal life. Not to get to a routine dynamic, to keep surprising ourselves all the time, I think that’s something beautiful.