Our Top 10 of 2013. No. 9: Clemency Burton-Hill watched Gustavo Dudamel at work from LA to Milan

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

SOUTH GRAND AVENUE in downtown Los Angeles, on a sunny Sunday in October. The steel abstractions of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall are gleaming under a deep blue sky. About 3,500 miles away, millions of Venezuelans are going to the polls for a presidential election. Inside this emblematically American hall, their compatriot Gustavo Dudamel is about to take a bow. Sunday-afternoon symphony concerts tend to be muted affairs, popular with older subscribers. But the reaction to this all-Beethoven bill, which includes the Eroica Symphony, is electric. As applause breaks over the hall, Dudamel leaps off the podium and embeds himself within his orchestra. Throwing his arms around a rank-and-file viola player and a cellist, he takes the bow with the whole ensemble. The audience rise to their feet, enraptured. It is three years since Dudamel took up the post of music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, aged 28, with an opening gala in front of 18,000 fans at the Hollywood Bowl, where the Beatles famously played. That five-hour extravaganza, which sold out in an hour, also involved fireworks, booze, giant plasma screens, hundreds of free tickets for the local Latino community, and a live HD webcast. Today’s concert, by contrast, is just an ordinary Sunday-afternoon offering. Nothing special; no fanfare. Except that there is now no such thing as a Dudamel concert without fanfare. 

The applause feels visceral. Rather than leading the musicians in another regular bow, Dudamel motions for them to swivel and face the $17 seats known as "orchestra view". The noise climbs another few decibels, and in our brightly coloured seats in the stalls, here in the music hall that Gehry intended to be a "living room for the city", the CEO of the LA Phil, Deborah Borda, leans in towards me.

"That was something he did instinctively, first time he ever performed here," she says. "Now you think about it, it’s obvious, to turn the orchestra around and include all the people behind them. But it had never occurred to any conductor to do it before." Dudamel, a surprisingly short figure for a towering presence, remains planted within the ranks of his orchestra. Much in demand around the globe, he is only in LA for about 15 weeks a year. Have any visiting conductors learned from his approach? "Not a single one."

A little later, Dudamel is in his office backstage. His face, ever brimful of life, seems newly animated. "It is crazy, no?" he exclaims as he flops into a chair, wiping sweat from his brow. "It is just crazy, crazy music!" He has been conducting the Eroica, which Beethoven supposedly dedicated to Napoleon, since he was a teenager in Venezuela, yet he appears struck by some fresh revelation. "It is just a symphony," he remarks in his heavily accented English. "It is not history, there is no subject. But at the end, you have the death of the hero, and wow, it’s a lot…" He shakes his head, a mass of black curls, in seeming wonder. "This huge, humanistic man, Beethoven, the way he have this genius, to use the power of the music for a message of humanity…It is ah-mazing! At the end, it’s like the revolution of the man. The revolution of the people..."

There is an impatient knock on the door. Before his admirers are let in, I’m tempted to ask about a possible revolution in his country, although I know that Dudamel will not be drawn into politics. Hugo Chávez’s socialist government is just the latest of seven Venezuelan administrations since 1975 that have richly supported the national programme of music education and social action, El Sistema. Dudamel, a graduate of the programme, is now its music director. "It is impossible for me to talk about politics," he has said in the past. So I ask instead about that communal bow: is it a conscious decision not to enjoy a moment of individual glory? "I don’t see another way!" he says, with a wide smile. "The conductor is just a person who is part of the team. Imagine I was just 'conducting' here, now: you would receive nothing. You’d think I was just some crazy guy waving my arms around." Then the man who has been labelled the Musical Messiah points out something most conductors have either forgotten or never believed. "The thing is, you need the orchestra. You need them much more than they need you."

GUSTAVO ADOLFO DUDAMEL RAMIREZ was born in January 1981 in Barquisimeto, capital of the state of Lara in western Venezuela. His father, Oscar, was a trombonist in a local salsa band, Sucre y Gaitas, and his mother, Solangel, gave singing lessons. As a boy, Gustavo was dismayed to discover that his arms were too short to take up his father’s beloved instrument, but he began learning the violin aged five. Lessons took place at the local nucléo, one of the hundreds of free music schools across Venezuela that make up the El Sistema network, which now teaches some 400,000 children every day, around 90% of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Dudamels, though not wealthy by Western standards, were comparatively comfortable: Gustavo grew up in a small, simple apartment with his extended family. He remembers going to a concert at the age of eight, with his grandmother, Engracia, and being transfixed by the conductor. Back home, so the story goes, he stuck an LP on the record player, lined up his Fisher Price toys, and pretended to conduct them.

A movie-obsessed, baseball-crazed kid who loved football and salsa dancing, Dudamel also showed reasonable promise in the local El Sistema orchestra—although he is fond of saying now that he was a "terrible" violinist. But one afternoon, aged around 12, he did something that would change the course of his life. The conductor, Luis Giménez, was late to a rehearsal, so Dudamel grabbed the baton and began conducting his friends. "I remember very well how it felt to hold a baton for the first time," he tells me when we meet again in LA, a few days after the Beethoven concert. "Like the most natural thing in the world."

Photograph Jehad Nga