Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dudamel speaks

On Friday evening, I was fortunate to see the brilliant young conductor Gustavo Dudamel lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a bravura performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 2, Barber's Adagio for Strings and Golijov's Azul for Cello and Orchestra with special guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma.

The next afternoon, the charismatic Dudamel gave a lively interview at a Symphony Center reception for supporters of the orchestra. Throughout his casual conversation with resident CSO music historian Phillip Huscher, Dudamel was funny, candid and self-effacing, easily charming a room full of people who pretty much already loved him anyway.

I took notes, and because I've been getting some traffic from fellow Dudaphiles, I thought I'd pass along a few of the rising maestro's remarks:
  • Dudamel was familiar with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra long before he first visited in spring 2007 and conducted Mahler's First Symphony. As a boy in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, he had a vinyl Deutsche Grammophon LP recording of the CSO. He would rush home from school to conduct to it, with his toys arrayed in rows around him like an orchestra.
  • His father was a salsa trombonist, and when he was a young boy, his dream was to follow suit. He had to wait to play the trombone because his arms were too short.
  • "El Sistema," the Venezuelan national music education program catering primarily to inner-city children, has captured the imagination of an entire nation. Just as every kid in Brazil wants to play soccer, so does every kid in Venezuela want to play classical music.
  • In a country of 25 million people, there are 300,000 kids playing in El Sistema, over one percent of the population. Dudamel is its best-known product and the founder is one of his mentors.
  • Dudamel was recently named the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is already working on YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, a Sistema-type outreach program to the kids of East L.A.
  • Dudamel recently conducted a simultaneous performance of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the Venezuelan national youth orchestra, along with two other youth orchestras on the same stage. There were 600 kids performing at once and thousands in the crowd.
  • The atmosphere was like a rock concert. When they played the familiar opening chords of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the audience went nuts. People in the crowd were screaming "Tchaikovsky!"
  • Dudamel sees the above scenario as the future of classical music, bringing the energy of rock music to the classical milieu. (Of course, classical and romantic music were the rock music of previous centuries, the popular music of their day, before electricity, recording technology and Les Paul came along.)
  • The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra in Caracas includes 853 musicians. "It's all big in Venezuela."
  • As a 23-year-old conductor in 2004, Dudamel entered (and won) the prestigious Mahler competition, a contest among the world's most promising young conductors. His English was very limited. It was his first time conducting a professional orchestra and the only phrases he could say in English were "It's too loud," "Perfect," and "One more time."
  • Because he couldn't understand what people were saying to him, he would nod yes to everything. Huscher joked that this is why Dudamel books so many gigs.
  • When he won a spot in the second round, his English was so poor that he didn't realize he'd advanced. He was surprised to learn it. Later, when they announced he won the competition, he didn't understand that he'd won. Eventually someone explained it to him and he was like, "Oh, good!"
  • The first time the Argentinian maestro and piano virtuoso Daniel Barenboim called him on the phone, he thought it was one of his friends pranking him. Barenboim summoned Dudamel to Berlin and they soon became mentor and protégé.
  • Although he has already learned a wide repertoire, he is saving certain composers and pieces for later in his career, including Wagner, Bruckner 6 and 8, Fidelio, and The Magic Flute.
  • For the English music magazine Gramophone, Huscher recently asked Barenboim for a quote summing up Dudamel. After a long pause, Barenboim replied, "He already knows everything that cannot be taught about conducting."
  • Dudamel conducted a series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. After each show he would go to the well-known Pink's hot dog stand for a post-concert bite to eat.
  • Eventually the Pink's proprietors learned that a famous young conductor was a regular customer. After Dudamel was named Esa-Pekka Salonen's successor at the helm of the L.A. Philharmonic, they added to the menu a tribute sausage called the Dudamel Dog.
  • Dudamel has tried his namesake sandwich. His review: "It's delicious!"

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