MORE

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

Being a brilliant and inspiring conductor isn’t enough, not when you’re tasked with saving classical music
Anna Hult courtesy Gothenburg Symphony

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.

“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.

 

He came to international attention after he won the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004. Former L.A. Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra’s retired executive director, were among the competition’s jurors. Salonen, who inaugurated his own successful, innovative programs and festivals, and the Philharmonic gave Dudamel his U.S. conducting debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005.

Then the Phil chose him in 2007 as its next music director. At the time, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic were rumored to be actively pursuing him. His contract with the Phil runs for five years. (He also is principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.)

Still, good genes don’t tell the whole story.

Maybe it was one of those inexplicable gifts from the gods?

Dudamel himself leaves no room for doubt. He says it was the training he got in the extraordinary Venezuela Youth Orchestra system.

“The orchestra system project gives results,” he says. “I see it, I have lived it, I am a product of this system.”

He is speaking of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, more popularly known as El Sistema, or the System. Dudamel speaks about it in Alberto Arvelo’s 2005 documentary, Tocar Y Luchar (To Play and to Fight), which chronicles the story of the System and its impact on people’s lives.

The System was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan conductor, organist, petroleum-economics professor and former congressional deputy. Given the outcome of the idea, he should also be called a visionary genius.

Abreu started with 11 children and a handful of volunteers in a garage. At the time, there were only two professional orchestras in the country, made up mostly of European-trained musicians.

Since then, more than 400,000 young people have gone through the System’s training. Estimates now suggest that the country has 125 youth orchestras and 30 professional orchestras, and the idea has been transplanted to other countries in South America, and to the U.K.

Abreu managed to get the System funded through seven successive changes of government, essentially by promoting it as a social program for disadvantaged kids. In fact, 90 percent of El Sistema’s kids are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And in a country where the average yearly income is less than $3,500, being poor means being poor indeed. The government gives the System an annual budget of about $30 million.

But when Abreu talks about “socialization,” he has a very exalted concept in mind.

“Music has to be recognized as an element of socialization,” he says in Arvelo’s documentary, “as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest social values, such as solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion, and it has the ability to unite an entire community and express sublime feelings.”

An orchestra, for Abreu, is no less than an engine of spiritual evolution. It is a group, he says, in which “everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself,” and whose sole aim is “to create beauty.”

In other words, Abreu’s aim wasn’t to offer a few more concerts in a few more concert halls. He wanted his orchestra to do nothing less than “transform the public.”

And he wanted that transformation to embrace millions.

“Originally, art was by the minority for the minority,” he says. “Then it became art by the minority for the majority. We are beginning a new era where art is an enterprise by the majority for the majority.”

It is that kind of ideal that the Philharmonic is pursuing in its fledgling youth-orchestra project. But where is El Sistema’s kind of support going to come from? Not from the federal or state governments, which are facing their own budget crises. At least not now. Maybe in time. ...

So far, there is only one YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra. But there are enough musicians to start a second one in mid-October, and Philharmonic President Deborah Borda says that a third will be launched at another location next fall.

Dudamel may be the most famous of the System’s graduates. But he is not the only illustrious one. Double bassist Edicson Ruiz at 17 became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic bass section.

Eight years earlier, Ruiz had been working as a supermarket packer in a rough Caracas neighborhood to help support his mother.

Another graduate, Lennar Acosta, represents yet another life turned around. Now a clarinetist in the Caracas Youth Orchestra and a tutor at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory, Acosta had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offenses before the System offered him a clarinet.

 

“At first, I thought they were joking,” he told writer Shirley Aphorp. “I thought nobody would trust a kid like me not to steal an instrument like that. But then I realized that they were not lending it to me. They were giving it to me. And it felt much better in my hands than a gun.”

Will Dudamel be able to change guns for clarinets and violins in Los Angeles?

 

The answer lies in the work the Dude does out of the limelight, including at a downtown recreation center. It’s at the EXPO Center, for instance, that Dudamel led the youngsters of the YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra on that recent Saturday. The ensemble was created by the Philharmonic and a consortium of supporting groups to promote youth development in underserved communities throughout the city. The umbrella name for the effort is Youth Orchestra L.A. (YOLA).

The model is clearly El Sistemo.

A short video posted on the L.A. Phil Web site shows Dudamel transforming a group of musicians — whose average age is about 12 — from a ragged team of players into a promising, intelligent ensemble. At the end of the video, the kids still haven’t mastered playing in tune. But nobody cares, or should care.

“The YOLA initiative is central to what Gustavo’s doing,” says Borda, Philharmonic president. “On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10. My commitment — and this institution’s commitment — to Gustavo and his vision of music both as a social and spiritual tool is absolutely key.”

The Philharmonic is not alone. Twenty to 30 youth orchestras exist in Los Angeles, according to Gretchen Nielsen, the Philharmonic’s director of educational initiatives. But they’re all in communities that have a lot of access to the arts, and the financial ability for children to join these mostly “pay-to-play” ensembles.

“That means if I’m a 15-year-old violinist and I want to be in a youth orchestra, typically I will have to pay that organization $200 to $1,000 for a year,” Nielsen says. “That’s because they have their expenses, too — paying a conductor, renting a space, sometimes getting coaches.”

That approach rules out many poor and middle-income pupils, which is to say, most kids in Southern California. The YOLA model flips pay-to-play on its head by buying the kids instruments, giving them free lessons and an ensemble rehearsal every week. And the orchestra is exploring partnerships with about 40 different organizations to pursue the idea of “opening access to more education to more children.”

Even so, that kind of outreach is almost certainly not enough to resurrect classical music. It simply can’t touch enough lives.

Which brings us to the elephant in the green room. The biggest hope for a revival of classical music lies in public schools, where music education is expensive, and thus a frequent target for school budget cuts across the country.

The Venezuelan government supports El Sistema heavily and consistently.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 885 K-12 schools serving about 688,000 kids, the district’s arts and music budget rose sharply over the past decade, reaching $45.2 million last year. But this year, the number is down by a third, to $31.5 million.

Outside organizations are helping, but they, too, are struggling. Stacy Brightman, Education and Community Programs director at the Los Angeles Opera, says the economic downturn has had a strong impact on its education programs, although general director Plácido Domingo makes them a high priority.

“For the last five years, we had the Arts Community Partnership Network, where arts-education providers would go through a pretty rigorous application process to become a vetted provider for the school district,” Brightman says. “That whole program has been dismantled.”

Marjorie Lindbeck, general manager of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, says that local arts organizations realized years ago “that there was very little arts education in the schools. So we saw it as our obligation to start filling that gap.

“We have a pretty vibrant education project, including a high school choir festival and a 10-week, fifth-grade residency program,” Lindbeck says. “But our outreach programs cost about $300,000, and we have to fundraise for every penny of that.”

The problem in Los Angeles schools is compounded by a patchwork curriculum, which varies from region to region, school to school — even in the best of times.

“When you look at the school system, there is no direct route for instrumental instruction,” Nielsen says. “Right now, if you live in South L.A., you may be lucky to have music in an elementary school, but in middle school, you might not even get music as an elective. Maybe you’ll play an instrument in high school, but by that time you may be hard behind.”

 

Dudamel and his supporters hope that as he confronts these problems, he will have an edge in one major slice of the community — Latinos. The Philharmonic is reaching out strongly already, promoting Dudamel with ads in Spanish-language media and in heavily Latino areas of Southern California.

It’s a start, but only a start, says Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega, founder and director of the L.A.-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra, which teaches classical music to young Hispanics.

The Philharmonic should have reached out to the Latino community 20 years ago, De Leon de Vega says. (See accompanying story.) With the ranks of classical-music fans shrinking by the day, she wonders if it is already too late.

 

Los Angeles is now home to essentially one local classical radio station, KUSC-FM.

“We definitely have a large contingent of 65-plus listeners,” says Brenda Barnes, the station’s president. “It’s not a new phenomenon for KUSC or classical music in general. If you look at any classical radio station across the country, you will see the audience demographic is 35-plus, even stronger as 50-plus.

“In commercial radio, an ‘older’ audience is defined as 26. Eighteen to 24 is their audience,” Barnes says. “From their perspective, our audience is ancient.”

One reason is the shifting musical landscape. “It used to be that music defined you,” Barnes says. “Back in my days of high school and college, you were a rocker, or you were a pop person. You were defined by your music.

“These days, it’s not true. Anybody listens to six, seven, eight kinds of music, and likes all of them. It’s a different world. Classical music is part of a bigger field.”

In fact, there is a term for these listeners: “omnivores.”

But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing for classical music. In fact, omnivores might give reason for hope. At least they appreciate classical music, and they sample it. When they sample Dudamel, perhaps what they hear will make them less omnivorous.

Orchestra members predict that listeners will easily notice the difference.

“Dudamel has a way of bringing the best out of everyone,” says Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour. “He probably studies, first and foremost, the emotional angle of music. That’s what’s magical. You need a visionary, guiding light, and he is that.”

Clarinetist David Howard agrees, likening Dudamel to Bernstein. “When Bernstein conducted us, it was like giving the orchestra a group hug, making us all feel like we were in the best club in the whole world,” Howard says. “Dudamel has the same thing. He embraces the music and the musicians at the same time.

“I don’t think he went to school to learn something like that. I don’t think it’s a study. If he has got guile, I haven’t seen it at all. He is just so warm in his embrace of everything that goes on,” Howard adds.

Every talent is unique, and there will never be another Dudamel. But it did take a system greatly supported by the Venezuelan government over many years to discover, nurture and support that great talent.

Can the City of Angels rise to the challenge?

Somewhere in Los Angeles right now, there is a youngster whose potential is undreamed of, and who may never otherwise have the chance to develop it. Dudamel, the Philharmonic and all the supporting groups of YOLA and other music-education programs are devoted to finding and nurturing such a kid. Actually, they hope they’ll find many thousands.

“What we’re hoping to achieve,” says the Philharmonic’s Nielsen, “is providing children with wide access to quality music instruction. We’re talking about pathways for kids to create music. It’s crucial. Otherwise, kids just won’t get it.”

Or, as an 11-year-old violinist in Arvelo’s documentary puts it: “I imagine that God must be like music because something so beautiful can only be the work of God.”

Writers John Wheeler and Oscar Garza contributed to this article.


Sponsor Content