Gustavo Dudamel: A maestro at a crossroads

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Gustavo Dudamel: A maestro at a crossroads
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor and music director, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, stand for an ovation at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2023. Dudamel, 42, the rare maestro whose fame transcends classical music, finds himself at a crossroads: not only planning to move to a new orchestra, but also into a new phase of his career. (Philip Cheung/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Gustavo Dudamel paused mid-Rachmaninoff the other morning and flashed a mischievous smile at the 92 players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“This part,” he said as they rehearsed at Walt Disney Concert Hall, “is like that aunt who kisses you too much.” He puckered his lips loudly three times. “My dears,” he said, looking toward the violins, “let’s try it again.”

He was back on the same podium where, just two days earlier, he had broken the news to the musicians, in a shaky and uncertain voice, that he would leave his post as their music and artistic director in 2026 to take on the same job at the New York Philharmonic. It was, he said, one of the hardest decisions of his life. But now he was back in his element, making music, swaying his hips and throwing his fist into the air, and imploring the players to “liberate every bit of gravity” from their playing — “to levitate.”

Dudamel, 42, the rare maestro whose fame transcends classical music, finds himself at a crossroads: not only planning to move to a new orchestra but also into a new phase of his career. Even as his curls have started to gray, he has never quite shed the image of a wunderkind, who at the age of 12 led his first orchestra in Venezuela, where he was born, and at 26 landed the job in Los Angeles.

“You cannot imagine how I have changed in these last years,” he said in an interview. “I’m not a young conductor anymore.”

As Dudamel prepares to take the podium in New York, he is working to establish himself as a seasoned interpreter of the repertory — a maestro fluent in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven as well as less common fare, like a ballet by Alberto Ginastera. And he wants to continue to bring works by living composers into the mainstream.

He is also eager to expand his legacy as a social activist — he was trained in El Sistema, the Venezuelan program that teaches music to children, many of them from poor families — from his coming platform in New York.

“I see New York as a capital of the world, where I can send a message to the world that music is an important element of life — not only entertainment, but transformational,” he said.

Dudamel has a devoted following in New York, where he was so admired that the Philharmonic decided to forgo a typical search for a music director, focusing its efforts instead on pursuing Dudamel like a “heat-seeking missile,” said Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and CEO. Players admire his passion and humility; unlike most conductors, he is known for abstaining from solo bows after performances, instead preferring to gesture to highlight the contributions of the members of the orchestra.

Film composer John Williams, a friend and mentor, described Dudamel as a “blessing to music” and predicted that he would be a transformative force in New York.

“I can’t think of another conductor, man or woman, that I know that derives more sheer joy from music,” he said. “I don’t think you could have a better leader — a more positive person — to admit freely all kinds of things into our world and at the same time maintain all the best traditions.”

Some have likened Dudamel to earlier titans like Leonard Bernstein, a predecessor at the New York Philharmonic, speaking of his potential to become a larger-than-life figure and to elevate the orchestra’s standing in American cultural life. Others question whether he is the product of hype. It is a lot of pressure.

“Of course we will have challenges,” he said. “That is part of the beauty. Every day that you are in front of an orchestra, that you’re in front of a score of music, it’s a new challenge.

“To be afraid or worried about the risk of making mistakes is not in my head,” he added. “Never! Because I think risk is a part of life.”

GUSTAVO ADOLFO DUDAMEL RAMÍREZ was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, on Jan. 26, 1981, the son of Oscar Dudamel Vásquez, a trombonist who played in a salsa band, and Solange Ramírez Viloria, a voice teacher. His arms were too short to play trombone like his father, so he took up the violin.

His grandparents initially tried to discourage his studies, worried about having another musician in the family.

“One time my husband told me, ‘Can you imagine if our grandson is a violinist? Who will be able to stand all the noise in the house?’” Engracia Vásquez de Dudamel, his grandmother, recalled in an interview with Spanish-language newspaper Hoy in 2009.

But the family relented, and Dudamel enrolled in El Sistema, where his talents as a conductor were soon recognized by José Antonio Abreu, the celebrated Venezuelan educator who had founded what became El Sistema in 1975.

Abreu took on Dudamel as a pupil, teaching him rhythm and phrasing, and honing his technique as a conductor, telling him to feel sound in his hands the way a flying bird feels air. He appointed Dudamel to lead the national youth orchestra and inculcated in him the zeal of an evangelist, enlisting him in his effort to spread the “social mission of art.”

In 2004, Dudamel became a sensation after he won the first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. One of the jurors in the competition, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (then the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) phoned Borda (then the orchestra’s president) and told her he had just seen “a real conducting animal.”

She invited Dudamel to make his American debut at the Hollywood Bowl the following year, in a program of works by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.

“In his U.S. debut Tuesday night, a 24-year-old conductor from Venezuela with curly hair, long sideburns and a baby face accomplished something increasingly rare and difficult,” Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote of that performance. “He got a normally restive audience’s full, immediate and rapt attention. And he kept it.”

Dudamel’s New York Philharmonic debut, in 2007, was just as memorable — especially after he broke a baton once used by Bernstein, which the orchestra had lent him, near the end of the concert, in the last few measures of Sergie Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. (The baton, still in two pieces, remains in the Philharmonic’s archives.)

When he began his tenure in Los Angeles, in 2009, Dudamel quickly became a celebrity, forging ties with Hollywood and capturing the imagination of audiences who were unaccustomed to classical music.

He set out to develop the ensemble’s sound; he has hired 42 of its musicians, about 40% of the orchestra. And he sought to continue Abreu’s mission, creating the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, known as YOLA, which was modeled on El Sistema.

During his directorship, the Philharmonic continued to rethink the role of a modern orchestra, making the promotion of new music a priority. The ensemble, one of the most financially secure in the United States thanks to the box office revenues it gets from the Hollywood Bowl, has commissioned more than 200 works during Dudamel’s time there and brought in pop and jazz stars, helping cement its reputation for innovation.

Composer John Adams, a frequent collaborator, said that Dudamel arrived in Los Angeles a “babe in the woods when it came to contemporary repertoire.”

“Then he discovered he liked it,” Adams said. “And now he’s not only a wonderful interpreter, but just a wonderful champion.”

As part of his focus on new music, Dudamel has sought to elevate composers from Latin America, often lamenting that the region’s composers are barely known compared with its writers and visual artists.

Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz said that Dudamel had been crucial in promoting her music, adding that it could be difficult for female composers from Latin America to gain recognition. She recalled a 2017 concert at which he featured one of her compositions before a performance by Mexican pop singer Natalia Lafourcade, greatly expanding the audience for her music.

“He’s an extremely generous person,” she said. “I’ve never felt I was with this infamous conductor where always there is some huge distance. I’ve always felt very, very close.”

In 2021, Dudamel became the music director of the Paris Opera, looking to expand his repertory and build more ties to Europe, where he has been a welcome guest at prestigious orchestras, including the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. (His wife, Spanish actress and filmmaker María Valverde, is from Madrid, and the couple maintain a home there.)

Dudamel’s ties to Venezuelan leaders, whose support was vital for El Sistema, have drawn scrutiny. He conducted at the funeral of President Hugo Chávez, and for years he resisted criticizing the government, even as a series of social and economic crises worsened in the country.

In “¡Viva Maestro!,” a documentary about Dudamel released last year, he spoke about the pressure he faced, not wanting to harm El Sistema. “I’m a leader of a program,” he said. “It’s not Gustavo only. It’s thousands of children, millions of young people.”

After a young El Sistema-trained viola player was killed during a street protest in 2017, Dudamel decided to speak out. “It was very difficult to see my people fighting, to see my people suffering and getting to a very violent moment,” he explained in the documentary.

He issued a statement that said “enough is enough” and wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times, criticizing a government plan to rewrite the constitution. President Nicolás Maduro responded by canceling overseas tours by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which he has led since 1999. Many players in that group, which had been a source of national pride, left the country. And Dudamel, who had last visited Venezuela in 2017, felt unable to return, even for the funeral of Abreu, his mentor, who died the following year. Instead he arranged a memorial concert in Santiago, Chile.

Dudamel finally returned to Venezuela a few months ago, shortly after touring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Boston, New York and Mexico.

As he pondered his next steps, he went to Barquisimeto to reconnect with what he described as “the genesis of my life as a musician.” He caught up with friends and family. He met with students and teachers in El Sistema. And he visited Abreu’s home, sitting in his studio and looking through his books.

Dudamel said that his teacher, whom he calls “maestro” and speaks of as a father, remained “in my soul and in my brain.” He contemplated what Abreu would have made of his move to New York.

“I was part of a vision — of his vision,” he said. “He saw me when I was a 9-year-old boy in Barquisimeto. I think he saw this. He saw me being in New York with the New York Philharmonic. I’m sure of that.”

He added: “I can see him. I can feel him. And I believe he is happy. He’s very happy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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