theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Gustavo Dudamel | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Conductor Gustavo Dudamel
As the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra return to the UK, its maestro explains where his loyalties lie
At the Royal Albert Hall one summer evening in 2007, a teeming ensemble of young South Americans served up a BBC Prom that is the most YouTubed classical concert this side of the Three Tenors. Under the baton of the compelling Gustavo Dudamel, an all-dancing, all-shouting account of “Mambo” from West Side Story has become the roof-raising sign-off of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, who last year dropped the word Youth from their name.
Still a mere 32, with the hair of a poet and the grin of a chipmunk, their conductor seems to be few critics’ idea of the finished article but he is the closest that a classical industry hungry for self-rejuvenation has to a saviour. If conducting is communicating, nobody of his generation does it better. It would almost be quicker to list the world-class orchestras he hasn’t worked with. This summer he ends nearly six years at the helm of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, while in 2009 Dudamel took on the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he recently completed a Mahler cycle.
And there is his Venezuelan gig. Like all of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Dudamel is a product of the now world-famous music education project known as El Sistema first set up pianist-politician José Antonio Abreu in 1975 to rescue children from a broken future. There were a dozen at the first sesson. Now there are 300,000. It gave him his chance first as a violinist. Then he traded bow for baton and by 18 was the orchestra’s music director.
This week the Venezuelans return to the UK. First they head to Scotland, specifically Raploch, a housing scheme on the edge of Stirling where that El Sistema has experimentally taken root. The 120 children from The Big Noise, as the longterm Scottish project is known, will perform with the Venezuelans at the open-air Big Concert on Thurday night while, for the rest of their stay, welcoming young South American musicians into their homes for impromptu chamber recitals.
I can still remember every moment of that residency and we are so happy to go back
And then Dudamel takes his musicians back to the Southbank Centre for a repeat of their tumultuous 2009 residency. There will be the grandstand concerts as part of the Shell International series in Festival Hall, but also satellite events of every stripe: family/player-curated concerts, free open rehearsals, have-a-bash workshops and all sorts amounting in total to 60 events. As in Raploch, young musicians of In Harmony England will get their moment. Sounds Venezuela, as the residency is called, is also part of the Soutbank’s Festival of the World.
In his idiomatic Venezuela-inflected globish English, Dudamel talks to theartsdesk in Gothenburg, the city which gave him his first job outside his home country after he stepped in at short notice to conduct a Prom. “We will be very sad when he goes,” says the clucking matriarch who has managed his life in Sweden these past five years. And she draws a finger down her cheek to semaphore her sorrow.
JASPER REES: You're just off the plane. Where were you last?
GUSTAVO DUDAMEL: In Venezuela. For one month and two weeks. To come to Europe is really difficult. When you go the other way it’s easy. You can go to sleep and you wake up really early. But the problem here is you never sleep during the night, so you want to sleep when it’s rehearsal here.
Are you a different conductor when you move between orchestras?
No. And you know I have the privilege to conduct three orchestras and of course I am a guest conductor with some orchestras that I really love and respect, but the fact that you have three families where you spend most of your time is great. You can build something in a long term. And of course you have been working for a relatively long period – here, five six years already. So you know the orchestra, they know you. And the same happens in Los Angeles where I only have been three years almost now. And in Venezuela of course it’s different because it’s longer but it’s the same family. It’s strange because they are three orchestra with three really different cultures. Here they have been many conducted by conductors. Also in Los Angeles Philharmonic. With the Bolívar it’s different because I started to conduct them when we were teenagers. But it’s great because in the long term when you arrive you know very well them and it’s easy to understand each other. I think it’s a privilege for a conductor to be music director in an orchestra of course if you have the chance like me in this case to have three it’s amazing because you spend the time with three families. Guesting is very important because you have different conditions. You have the same love but you cannot pretend to go as a guest and to change everything because it’s impossible. Being music director you can change things with time and then when the time passes it’s easy because everybody understands what it happening. With the time we understand each other so I can go deeply. As a guest you have only one week or two weeks. You have to adapt to the tradition but also you give a little bit to you, you receive a little bit of them. It’s beautiful. This world is amazing. Every day is different.
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