L.A. Phil's Gustavo Dudamel: Being a Brilliant and Inspiring Conductor Isn't Enough 

Not when you're tasked with saving classical music

Wednesday, Sep 23 2009

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel drops his hands to his sides, and the 100 or so youth-orchestra musicians lower their instruments. They are rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which opens with the most famous four-note motto in music: da-da-da-DAH. Dudamel hears them playing it. He doesn’t hear them feeling it. He wants them to know that the music is not just notes.

“You know what this is about?” he asks, with an expectant smile. “It’s about fate. It’s about destiny.”

Then, slapping his hand hard on the music stand, he sings out the four-note motto, flutters his hands to the scurrying music that follows, and suddenly clutches his hands to his heart.

click to flip through (2) ANNA HULT COURTESY GOTHENBURG SYMPHONY - Being a brilliant and inspiring - conductor isn’t enough, not when you’re tasked with saving classical music
  • Anna Hult courtesy Gothenburg Symphony
  • Being a brilliant and inspiring conductor isn’t enough, not when you’re tasked with saving classical music

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“Oh, my, it’s so tragic, the beginning of this note,” he says. The music should feel like that, and this: “Oh, my God! What is going to happen to me?”

Correct pitch and all that will come later. The kind of understanding Dudamel is transmitting might not otherwise ever come. And it must come if the Dude is going to save classical music.

By now anyone with eyes, ears or even a jones for hot dogs knows that the boy wonder is about to become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The city is in the throes of Dudamania. The 28-year-old Venezuelan’s face is all over town, on the backs of buses, on television, in the newspapers, on 60 Minutes. Tickets for his first concert — a free Hollywood Bowl event on October 3 called “¡Bienvenido Gustavo!” — ran out the first day, as if the Rolling Stones were playing there.

You can even get a Dudamel Dog, a.k.a. the “Dude Dog,” at Pink’s hot dog stand on La Brea (“Hot Dogs to the Stars!”), laced with jalapeño, guacamole, nachos and other delectable items.

“All of us at the Music Center — the opera, the symphony, the Center Theatre Group — are feeling the electricity and that energy that is coming from him,” says Stephen D. Roundtree, president of Los Angeles Opera and the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County (Music Center).

It’s a celebration that suggests Dudamel is a raging success even before he lifts his baton as music director for the first time

But don’t believe it. Don’t be seduced into thinking that a great conductor, a musical phenom many people compare to the young Leonard Bernstein, will succeed in Los Angeles merely by inspiring one of the world’s leading orchestras to play brilliantly.

No, in this case, expectations are much higher. When Dudamel was named music director, the selection came with a whispered subtext more ambitious than making great music. Classical-music audiences are graying in Los Angeles, as they are in cities across the nation. Orchestras need fresh faces, soon.

“The challenge for all of us is ... to find the ways to connect with younger audiences,” Roundtree says. “It’s no secret that for all the performing arts, but probably more particularly the symphony, the audiences are aging.”

In the words of Andrea Laguni, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, “I don’t want to cry complete disaster, but there is an urgency.”

That urgency is now shifting onto Dudamel’s shoulders, and with it comes this question: Just how does an art form that requires a practiced ear and a long attention span compete in this age of a million diversions?

The answer to Dudamel, and the hope of the people who brought him here, is in the scene unfolding before that youth orchestra on a recent Saturday morning. Dudamel wants the orchestra of young African-Americans and Latinos to feel the music. If they feel it, they will appreciate it. And if they appreciate it, they are likely to become lifelong fans, maybe even patrons.

That’s the way it worked at home in Venezuela. A youth-symphony movement has swept the country, churning out hundreds of thousands of players, new fans. Dudamel himself was a product of, and later a leader of, that movement.

Now orchestras around the world are watching Los Angeles to see if the Venezuela template will work here. There are many reasons to believe that it won’t, starting with the vast differences between California and Venezuela. But if it does, if Dudamel somehow ignites passion for classical music through a youth moment, then that model could breathe new life into orchestras everywhere.

The Dude will have saved classical music.


Since so many people are depending on him, it’s fair to ask where the Dudamel magic comes from.

Some of it may be inherited. Dudamel was born in 1981 in Barquisimento — a city in western Venezuela — to a musical family. His father played trombone in the city’s orchestra. His mother taught voice at the music conservatory there.

Dudamel started studying violin at age 4, and began conducting lessons when he was 11. At 13, he became an assistant conductor, and at 18, music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

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