August 2009

Gustavo DudamelPassion Play

Gustavo Dudamel by Gabriel Moreno

What’s the Maestro’s secret? Love the music—and the musicians who play it by Annie Gilbar / Illustration by Gabriel Moreno

Read more about Gustavo Dudamel at

They say it’s not right for an inter­viewer to have a crush on her subject. Too bad. Get over it. Besides, I am in good company. Los Angeles has a mind-blowing crush on its new conductor—and rightly so.

Gustavo Dudamel is already a star, and he has already changed our city’s musical sensibility: Embracing classical music has become the rule, not the exception; expanding our youth-orchestra program has become a goal we can touch; we know how to spell Tchaikovsky as easily as we spell Madonna, how to explain and enjoy a concerto as easily as a jazz set; we can anticipate sold-out performances (some of them free); and we can relish the experience of listening—most of all, listening—to sounds that shatter every music lover’s expectations, every audience’s dreams. All you have to do is hear him once. He hasn’t yet fully moved into his modest offices at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so we met in the Frank Gehry–designed Guest Conductor Suite, where he charmed me in an English deliciously tempered by the inflections of his native Venezuela.

I have stalked the Maestro (he prefers I call him Gustavo, but a formal moniker seems funnily appropriate for the slight but larger-than-life artiste) for months. I first heard him conduct Brahms’ Fourth and Mendels­sohn’s Fourth “Italian” with the Israel Philharmonic at Segerstrom Hall. Within days, I was back, watching as he rehearsed and performed Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall and conducted the Expo Center Youth Orchestra, a group of 7- to 14-year-olds, in Beethoven’s Fifth and Offenbach’s Cancan. I cried at all.

So, who is the young man beyond the wild hair and gesticulating arms? At 28, he has been conducting for about 10 years, playing since he was a tot, rising through El Sistema, the publicly funded program for youth orchestras in Venezuela. He is the happiest man I have ever met. Take a look at his face, and you see a smile that makes you smile in turn because it is genuine and comes from the lack of guile at the root of his soul. Just simply happy. He loves his life—his family, his bride of three years, his new city (which he already calls “my home”) and, of course, music. All music.

“I have this conception of music that it is a river—that, like life, it is the particular place where the water is going, but the water is the music.”

People often ask me, “What difference does a conductor make? Beethoven’s Fifth is Beethoven’s Fifth.” Actually, no. Even with the same orchestra—say, the London Philharmonic or, better yet, the L.A. Philharmonic—the Fifth under Daniel Barenboim does not sound the same as the Fifth under Zubin Mehta or Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein or Sir Georg Solti. Each conductor brings his own music history, energy and scholarly understanding of what Ludwig wanted for the sound of the Fifth. When the Maestro conducts it, the Fifth sounds as if Beethoven has just written it and you are hearing it for the very first time. I play it in the car every day. (The Maestro has recorded only four discs, so if you want to hear his work, you don’t have a lot of choice.) I have grown up listening to Beethoven’s Fifth—but not like this. Never like this. I try to figure out why. There has been a lot written about the young Maestro, naturally: how he has been a conductor of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra since he was 18 and how he was “discovered” on an international scale when, at 23, he won the conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, and led the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (the first time he had ever conducted a professional orchestra).

And then I remember the sound of the Mahler, the Mendelssohn, the Tchaikovsky and especially the Brahms, when the trombones—trombones, for goodness sake—made my heart feel too big for my chest. And when the music stopped and the audience went wild, shouting their approval with arms flailing, I noted a truly astonishing sight—the members of the Israel Philharmonic, talented and crusty bunch that they are, standing and applauding and, yes, cheering their conductor. This. Does. Not. Happen.

And suddenly I get it. That is what the Maestro does. He makes every player (each of whom could be a star soloist) rise to another level altogether. He makes each play their best—give it more and then yet a little more—to please him and to make that once-in-a-lifetime sound. He is persistent and disciplined in his communications with his performers but loving at the same time, and the bond he forges with them makes them want to play their best. And when 100 people take his passion and make it theirs—that’s when you get that once-in-a-lifetime sound. And, lucky us, once in a lifetime, come October, will be ours many times over.

Annie Gilbar: Do you know what’s going on in this town since you announced you are coming? Do you have any idea?
Gustavo Dudamel: No. [Laughs.]

AG: Your appointment changes all of music in Los Angeles. I was a pianist when I was young. It was my life. For those who live to hear music, hearing the best is everything. And here you come.
GD: It’s a huge honor when you have the opportunity to work with people who want to play, who want to make something magic with the music—and this is it.

AG: But they want to make it more for you. Hearing you with the Israel Philharmonic was unbelievable. They adore you. And those musicians are a tough group.
GD: Yes, they are not easy!

AG: I never saw them applaud for anybody, ever. You are able to make every musician play his or her best at that moment, and the result is shattering. A part of it, I think, is they want to make you happy. So if every instrument is played at its best, the whole orchestra sounds different.
GD: When you feel that they are playing with you, it’s not just to hit the notes. For me, it’s very important that musicians can feel. That’s why I say to them some image, or I want the blood, or I want the sound of the meat. It’s feelings, and this is music. It’s the complete energy of the moment. Of course it’s about me, but I think more about the energy of the moment. Of course you need to have a motivation. If you want to drive a car, you need to have a pilot to drive this wonderful machine. But if you want to go fast or slow, this depends on the moment. In the sad moments, I feel you can take more happiness, because it’s a moment to go up. The musicians, they may be tired to play our repertoire every week, every season. The challenge for the conductor is to take this energy and to give happiness in the way they can play. At the end, it is not my creation. It is not the sounds’ creation. It is the creation of each musician that is sitting in the orchestra.

Mick Haggerty stenciled Dudamel's image on a concrete wall. Mick Haggerty stenciled Dudamel's image on a
concrete wall.

AG: You bring it out of them. As you say, you don’t conduct the notes, you conduct the music.
GD: This is a very important point, because this is true, we have the notes there, in the score, but at the end, it’s not this. It’s the sound, you know? The musicians and, of course, the conductor have the opportunity to make the magic. The sound is something magic. The person feels this magic, because it is going directly here. [Puts his hand to his chest.]

AG: Into your heart.
GD: To your heart, to your soul.

AG: You don’t care so much if it’s not perfect.
GD: Exactly. I don’t care. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s more about, Wow. I will remember this forever.

AG: You communicate that to them. There’s something about you that makes performers love the music more. At Segerstrom Hall last November, I heard the Mendelssohn Fourth, I heard the Brahms Fourth—these are symphonies they’ve been playing their whole lives. But with you conducting, it was different! It seemed that you make them dig for a sound that is more passionate, powerful and unforgettable. Maybe it’s a new way to see it, or maybe you just make them better.
GD: My wife is always telling me that I want to make everybody happy. She’s always telling me, “Wow, you love to touch.” I do love to touch people. With Lenny [Bernstein], for example, he says always, “I love music, but I love more the people.” And this is so beautiful, because it’s true. In my family, it was very important to be open, honest—to be a good person. This is normal. It was more when I started to play in the orchestra, to play in the system, that then you have to start to study in a not-individual way. When I went to the conservatory, did I go to be the best musician in the world? No, I went to the conservatory to have a group of friends and play music with them. Maybe that is why the connection with musicians—to be part of this group community. And maybe this is the secret.

AG: You see it in your eyes when you conduct that you get joy out of every minute.
GD: It’s only to have fun. This is the secret. When you are sitting there, you need to have fun. Enjoy each moment. If your feelings are a little bit sad, you have to be there, to get it with the happy people. And all this energy.

AG: But you cannot make light of the fact that you really know the music. When you did the pizzi­cato, I was in awe, because you didn’t move! Even your left hand was still—it was as if you were conducting with your eyes.
GD: But you don’t have to use all your body. With the pizzicato—it was so beautiful because the players were free. They weren’t following the void, they weren’t following the line. If they want a little crescendo, a little dimin­uendo—only with the eyes. The traditional instrument of the conductor is the baton. Yes, I love the baton. But as a conductor, your instrument is not your hands. It’s only your body.

AG: Do you hear music in your head all the time?
GD: Always, always. Even when I’m resting. I cannot rest from the music, because music has given me everything.

AG: I have your CDs in my car—that Beethoven’s Fifth doesn’t sound like any Beethoven’s Fifth I have ever heard. But you haven’t recorded enough yet.
GD: No. [Laughs.] Not yet.

“I love Latin music—salsa, merengue, boleros. Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin…I can speak to you a lot in the way of pop music.”

AG: Do your parents and your grandparents see you play? They are still living in Venezuela?
GD: Yeah. Of course they will come [to the opening]. It’s wonderful, because I grew up with my grandmother. I had the love of my parents, but they were very young—they were like my brother and my sister. They were 18, 19 when I was born. The youth of my parents and my grandparents [who were 47, 48]—I think that’s why I have this energy. My grandfather, he passed away about six years ago. It was very sad. He’s still with me. He didn’t fly, never in his life. But now he can fly with me always.

AG: Tell me about your wife.
GD: Oh, she’s wonderful. Eloisa came in the right time in my life. She came when I won the com­pe­tition in Bamberg, and all the big orchestras were starting to call me, you know. I’m still at the beginning of my career, but four years ago was the very beginning. I was conducting a lot in Vene­zuela, but I started to do more traveling around with different orchestras. And when she arrived in my life, it was like, Wow.

AG: We call it the core. And when the core is strong, you can do anything.
GD: Exactly. Always keeping the space for her to have her things—you know, her own life, because this is very important. One of my reasons why I love her is because she was writing to me, and it was so beautiful when she wrote. She has her company; she has her productions of ballets. This is wonderful, because I maybe have to be rehearsing all day. I have to be studying a lot, traveling a lot, but it’s wonderful to have this balance of life.

AG: When did you first meet the Israel Philharmonic?
GD: The first time was really crazy, because I arrived in Israel and Zubin was supposed to come to that concert. The orchestra—they played with Bernstein and with Zubin thousands of times, and with Barenboim. The big conductors. I’m coming here... I will try, but they were very upset. They were like—

AG: “Who is this kid?”
GD: I’m 23, 22. And then, at some point…

AG: You won them over.
GD: It was wonderful. It was like it was here in L.A. From the first time. It was a very amazing moment. Halfway through the first rehearsal, immediately, there was something that connected.

AG: When you do Mozart, for example, do you think of what he wanted you to interpret? I mean, it will say fortissimo, but your fortissimo is really fortissimo, your adagio is really adagio.
GD: It’s difficult because, of course, you have to follow what he wrote, in a particular path. Also, in a way, you have to re-create the music, and then you put in your blood or your little feeling.

AG: It’s what made your Brahms yours.
GD: Around the world, many orchestras play Brahms—this is true. But the beautiful thing is that in Kuala Lumpur, they are playing, but it sounds different in Bogotá. It sounds different in Berlin. It sounds different here in L.A. Same music, different orchestra, different conductors, different interpretation. Always. It has to be so. I have this conception of the music that it is a river, that, like life, it is the particular place where the water is going, but the water is the music. It’s always in the same place, but it’s always different water.

AG: Do you listen to other music? Rock and roll or—
GD: I love to. I’m very open to this.

AG: There’s no bad music, just not great playing.
GD: Exactly. I love music.

AG: Who do you listen to?
GD: Oh, many things. I love, of course, Latin music—salsa, merengue, boleros. I love Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin. It’s amazing! I can speak to you a lot in the way of pop music.

AG: And you’re a dancer! You dance with Eloisa.
GD: I try. [Yawns.] Sorry, it’s not that I’m tired—I’m just hungry.

AG: You’re a dinner guy.
GD: I love to eat.

AG: What do you eat here?
GD: I love hot dogs. They made a hot dog for me, with my name, at Pink’s, with jalapeño, guacamole, nachos, everything. It’s not very Venezuelan, it’s more Mexican. But it doesn’t matter. I love to eat.

AG: Are you looking for a house?
GD: My wife is looking for a place. I have the musicians, the people here. Deborah [Borda, president and CEO of the L.A. Phil] is amazing. Some Vene­zuelan friends live here. For me, it’s a dream coming true. To be here, to be part of this family is so wonderful.

AG: Tell me about trying to do a kind of El Sistema here.
GD: We want to have orchestras for children in all the communities. More than music—to bring stability to these people, that they are part of something. Our world now is more...pragmatic.

AG: Not so sensitive and personal.
GD: Exactly. It’s like this—it’s like music. It’s better to have perfect everything. If not, it’s not good art. The thing is to give sensibility.

AG: You care more about the experience, then.
GD: If you start to walk in a role, and you don’t start to imagine it, you have an empty role. You can walk in this role, not run. Without imagination, without sensibility, you don’t feel it.

AG: That really is no way for anyone to live.
GD: You have to stop. You have to see. You have to go down. You have to go up. You have to smell. And this is the only way that the world will change. Now, our world—it’s really crazy. We are one world; we are the same people. This is the thing. We are thinking the same. I’m telling you this here.

AG: You see yourself as part of the community.
GD: Absolutely. And without this, I’m nothing.

AG: Do you play music at home?
GD: Sometimes, yes. When I have the opportunity to play an instrument, of course.

AG: And do you listen to the CDs of famous performances?
GD: Of course. I love, you know, for example, to conduct a piece, to sit in my house and to—I have many CDs—put on the same piece with different conductors.

AG: Somebody else playing? No! So if you were getting ready to play the Tchaikovsky Fourth, you’d listen to other conductors?
GD: When I start to think of a piece, I have to conduct it entirely. I think, Let’s see the interpretation of others, and it’s so beautiful how the same music is so different. Even conductors from the same period. The technology, in a way, is wonderful. Now we have the media, we have DVDs, we have all these things, and we can even see great conductors.

AG: So the pieces you play, you want to see how other people did it. Is that it?
GD: Yes, people have all this information; we are living in a wonderful time.

AG: This is a town—and you know this—that celebrates celebrity. For you it could be a double-edged sword, I think. First of all, to make celebrity out of classical music is a gift to everybody, because that is not natural for a lot of people. To have your concerts sold out ahead of time—well, this is amazing. To have young children actually understand and be able listen to classical music and to learn how to play and appreciate it...
GD: They are the future. If you’re famous, you have to use your image for the other people.

AG: But not too many 28-year-olds know that.
GD: If I have the opportunity to be famous now, I want to show to the kids and the new generation that it’s possible—it’s possible to make it to reality, that you can have a career, be successful, enjoy and not have depression. Because I never have depression in my life. And now to bring this orchestra to the people who don’t have the opportunity to have classical music. It’s really important—one of the most important things. Because that is our future, and we have to be in the future. Especially here in L.A.—especially in my home.