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Gustavo Dudamel Talks About His First Film Score, for a Simón Bolivar Biopic

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood BowlEXPAND
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl
Photo by Adam Latham

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the LA Philharmonic and one of the few actual celebrities in the modern concert hall world, has branched out to do something often looked down on in that world: He scored a movie. He’ll conduct a suite of his new film score at a concert this Thursday at the Hollywood Bowl.

The Liberator (Libertador in its native Spanish) is the epic chronicle of the life of Simón Bolivar, the heroic figure at the heart of the South American Revolution. The film, which opens October 3, was a passion project for several Venezuela natives: Edgar Ramirez (Wrath of the Titans) starred and produced, and Alberto Arvelo (who drew festival attention with his A House With a View of the Sea in 2001) directed. Arvelo previously worked with Dudamel, another Venezuelan, on the 2006 documentary To Play and To Fight, about the Venezuelan youth music project El Sistema  where Dudamel received his own early education, as well as the inspiration for the LA Phil's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and the two quickly developed a fraternal bond. The conductor became an obvious choice to provide this ambitious cinematic portrait with its musical soul.

“I was always excited about film music,” says Dudamel, who admits that he hasn’t actually composed much music at all since the cathartic efforts of his teen years. “I remember I went with my friends to the cinema, and we were more focused on the music than even the image, and [on] how the music was working. When Alberto started the project — [which involved] a preparation of many years — I was so connected, because we are kind of a family. But I started as a music advisor. I knew that I was the conductor, we had the orchestra, everything — but not to compose.”

Arvelo, a musician himself, likes to conceive a musical tone or idea for a scene even before he shoots it, and Dudamel became his sounding board. “I was reading the script, and it was so poetic, so beautiful,” says Dudamel. “Bolivar’s speech before the battle, for example, was kind of a key. I told Alberto, ‘What [if we] don’t go for a very aggressive music to prepare to go to battle? Why don’t we do the most simple and evocative music we can have?’ I showed him a Tchaikovsky piece for choir, a capella. Since the beginning I was thinking of a miserere" — a musical setting of the cry for mercy in the Bible's Psalm 51 — "for the battle scene. That was the first thing I wrote as an exercise...not to show him I was the composer — to show him the kind of things that can work.”

In April 2011, Dudamel canceled a block of international concerts to be at home with his wife, who was pregnant with their son, and in a rare break from his busy schedule he began tinkering around on the piano. “The first thing I wrote is the beginning of the movie — the Bolivar motif,” he remembers. “Before [Arvelo] did the shooting around Venezuela and Spain, I showed him that theme. And from that moment I started to compose.”

He quickly figured out (with a little advice from his friend John Williams) that he didn’t need to write a complex symphony, that simpler was better. He built the whole score from a few simple, melodic motifs—and weaved into the tapestry the colors of indigenous flutes, percussion and the guitar-like cuatro. The result is a surprisingly straightforward, emotionally direct work that expresses the interior complexity of this larger-than-life historical figure — and captures the spirit of Latin America.

“The life of Bolivar, my God, is infinite,” he says. “You go into it, and you go, ‘How is this possible?’ I think that was the key of the music—to be inspired [by] this character that we have in every square in Venezuela, but know so little about.”

Dudamel will conduct his 20-minute “Suite from Libertador” in a night of film music at the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, July 31, at 8 p.m. The concert, “Noche di Cine,” is part of the Americas & Americans Festival, and will feature music by Thomas Newman, Gustavo Santaoalla, Bear McCreary, and others. Tickets and information can be found at hollywoodbowl.com.


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