The Passions of Gustavo Dudamel
On a sunny summer afternoon at the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel takes a break from conducting a rehearsal of the opera “Tosca” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His 5-year-old son, Martín, plays with a friend and draws pictures while musicians stroll to the stage and proud papa looks on.
It seems an untraditional scene, as many think of classical music as stuffy. But it’s not surprising. This is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the more dynamic orchestras around, with a 35-year-old leader who carries an air of singular tone and style. The Phil is hugely popular in the world’s culture capitals, where audiences pack concert halls to see what all the fuss is about. Orange County already knows – the orchestra is a draw each year when it plays the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Especially when Dudamel stands on the podium.
Now a rock star of the classical ranks, the Venezuelan rose from boy violinist to boy conductor through El Sistema, his country’s musical program for children. He skyrocketed to prominence when he won the 2004 Bamberg Symphony/The Mahler Competition for conductors at age 24.
“We had to lure him,” said Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the LA Phil. “Then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen called him a conducting animal, a hundred-year talent!”
And get him she did: Named music director of the LA Phil in 2007, the maestro’s tenure has been extended through the 2021 season.
The man who won the Mahler Competition says the composer’s work is one of his great passions, and it’s the composer’s Symphony No. 9 that the orchestra brings to Costa Mesa in October.
“My love affair with Mahler started when I was a boy and given a recording by my uncle,” Dudamel says. “The first symphonic piece I conducted at age 16 was Mahler’s First Symphony.”
The First bursts with Eastern European folk tunes. Orange County will hear the Ninth, which is far deeper and vastly profound, filled with passion from the composer’s life, which inspired Dudamel’s lifelong immersion in that artist’s works.
That immersion culminated in 2012, when he accomplished a marathon of sorts, leading all of the composer’s nine symphonies in just a month’s time, with both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
Reviewing the performance of the Ninth, Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed wrote of its “extraordinary beauty, the kind that you can never get enough of.”
Despite the Ninth Symphony’s complexity, enjoying its performance is not difficult, says Dudamel, who explains that its beauty is simple – and inspires deep feelings in the listener.
“Just let the music wash over you,” he says. “Listening is visceral, nothing complicated.”
This will be Dudamel’s fifth appearance at Segerstrom Concert Hall, which he says is no ordinary place. The maestro describes Segerstrom as one of his favorites – on par with Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Not only is it visually beautiful, he says, but its acoustics cultivate a warm sound and wide dynamic range.
“The hall is powerful,” says Dudamel. “Musicians can just be themselves.”
And the Ninth is an unusual, iconic work. Where many symphonies feature a fast-tempo first and final movement, Mahler’s symphony is what’s called photo-negative, with the movements reversed – starting and ending in dramatic slow movements.
“It is a transcendental masterpiece,” says Dudamel. “You get inside the soul of old Mahler dying – screaming out to his wife, Alma, in a duality of love and death.”
Describing Dudamel’s accomplishments is exacting, as his accolades and resume are lengthy and multiplying. He could be rehearsing in fluent Italian at Milan’s La Scala one day, then rushing off to Vienna, Barcelona or Hamburg the next. He learned English by practicing on the LA Phil with his first words: “perfect,” and “not together.”
He spends much of his time at his home in Los Angeles and his native Venezuela, where he owns a city home and a country getaway, remaining music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which he first conducted when he was 15. His season with the LA Phil begins September 27. But much of his life is on the road. Both of his orchestras travel and he handles other dates, including a 2017 stint as guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, plus he returns this year to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s televised New Year’s Eve concert.
Dudamel clearly is a global citizen, one who loves Spanish, Italian and Japanese food, and who takes in museums wherever he travels. And he’s ever content cooking at home with his son.
With so much travel, Dudamel loves learning about technology from his little boy, with whom he Skypes when they are apart. The tyke often accompanies his maestro papa home to Venezuela too, and they are considering downloading “Pokémon Go” to explore new spots. As much as Dudamel loves his son, he also relishes quiet time, best found on airplanes.
“I clock off the Wi-Fi. No one can call me. No interviews or rehearsals. No electronics. I read, study scores and think.” Perhaps this is when he thinks about music the most. Mahler haunts him, as it does most who hear it.
“It is love, passion, death, and everything we know in our private life,” Dudamel says. “Just listen to Mahler and you will truly find life.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, October 29, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa :: philharmonicsociety.org
Dudamel with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 21 performances in 2016, September 27-December 11 :: laphil.com