About Gustavo

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Chapter 1


Growing Up through Music

Music shaped the joys and dreams of Gustavo Dudamel’s childhood.

Son of a trombonist and a singing teacher, Gustavo was playing with symphonies when others were still busy with finger-painting. In the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, where crime and drugs threatened many of his young peers, Gustavo credits the extraordinary music education that he enjoyed with his remarkable success.

As a young child, Gustavo Dudamel yearned for the day when his arms would be long enough to enable him to play the trombone, like his father. But at his local "nucleo", music teachers found a violin to fit his young limbs, and Gustavo found his place in the world of the symphony orchestra.

Concerts and orchestras fascinated him; by the time he was 10 years old, Gustavo was reading scores the way other children read novels.

"I remember that I had a favorite game. I had little toy soldiers, but not with guns. I would put them into orchestral positions, and then I would put on some music, and I would always be the conductor. It was fun!"

Visionary economist, organist and politician José Antonio Abreu started Venezuela’s "El Sistema" in 1975, with five children in a parking garage.

Almost four decades down the line, some half a million children, most of them from communities living below the poverty line, have grown up in the orchestras of El Sistema.

Like all youngsters who join "El Sistema", Gustavo Dudamel learned social responsibility alongside musicianship. It is fundamental to the principals of "El Sistema" that older students act as mentors for their younger peers, and that successful professional musicians will also take on work as teachers and leaders. Children learn conducting in the same way that they learn instrumental skills–deep end first.

"I was in a rehearsal in Barquisimeto one day, and the conductor was sick, and the podium was empty, so I thought, OK, and I took the baton.

"I hadn’t studied. I just thought, ‘I can do this.’ And it was funny, because my friends were there, playing. And they all laughed. But within five minutes it had changed. They all thought, OK, it’s time to work now. And that was beautiful.

"Then the conductor came and said, ‘Ah, you are very good! You conduct this concert.’"

Gustavo was twelve years old. Five months later he was given the assistant conductor post in Barquisimeto; by the following year, he had his own chamber orchestra.

At the age of 15, he found himself on the podium of the nation’s flagship Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (now the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela), of which he remains chief conductor.

"Of course, there were a lot of other child conductors," he remembers. "Many. When I was twelve, I had a conductor friend who was eight. He was conducting Rossini, Charpentier, and the national anthem. This is normal in Venezuela."

Even in a country where it is normal to nurture young talent, Gustavo’s gift was recognized as exceptional–enough so to earn him lessons with El Sistema founder and director José Antonio Abreu, and not long afterwards, the attention of top international conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado.

In 2002, he was invited to study with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle. The orchestra’s Academy is set up for instrumentalists, but an exception was made for this gifted young conductor; in the absence of a living bursary, he stayed at the home of then-orchestral trumpeter Thomas Clamor, a frequent guest in Venezuela himself.

"He’d spend entire nights watching my DVDs of the orchestra, and listening to CDs," Clamor recalls.

"I gave him scores, and he kept them all on the second bed in the guest room. He’d be up all night learning with such diligence and application that, at some point, my wife and I started to worry. And we said, ‘Gustavo, you must sleep!’

"But it was extremely impressive for me to see the single-mindedness with which he pursued musical knowledge. He wanted to learn, learn, learn, to try new things, implement them, rehearse, prepare well for the orchestra that he was working with. I have never encountered anybody who worked harder."

Swedish contralto Anna Larsson, who has known Gustavo for a decade, tells a similar story.

"I think it is one of the downsides to being considered to be a Wunderkind. People think that you can just come along and do it, that you don’t have to prepare. But it’s the opposite. I think every Wunderkind is like that because they’ve been working so hard. If you see what Mozart did as a child, working with his father on composing and performing; or Michael Jackson; or the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling; you’ll see they’ve been working like crazy from when they were babies. Gustavo has always worked hard, and he is one of the best-prepared conductors I’ve ever sung with."

Dudamel grew with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Unlike most national youth orchestras, which re-audition each year and keep membership below a cut-off age, the Simón Bolívar retained its membership, and grew with its players.

In 2000, he led the orchestra on its first German tour. Further tours followed, along with a Deutsche Grammophon recording contract. Today, Gustavo and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are in annual demand on the world’s leading stages.

"He grew up with these musicians," says Thomas Clamor. "They share the same past. And when he’s together with them, they’re like family, and it does him good, I believe. In that atmosphere he can move, and can generate energy."
Chapter 2

Making Music

Joy and Collaboration

Orchestral musicians speak of Gustavo Dudamel’s ability to communicate joy, and his unique capacity to create a sense of collaboration.

Fresh from a concert with Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles, pianist Emanuel Ax is euphoric.

"He was miraculous. He’s obviously an incredibly talented and astute musician, which is a rarity in itself. But then he’s also got something that just seems to make everybody happy. The ability to make things fun while at the same time taking them incredibly seriously is a talent that Gustavo has more than anybody else I’ve ever seen."

Vijay Gupta, a New York violinist now in his seventh Los Angeles season, says that Gustavo Dudamel brings a sense of community to the orchestra.

"With Gustavo," he says, "everything is an embrace. There is a commitment to always get better. But it’s the way he does that. He demands that you soar, but makes it feel as if you’re part of the family. It’s very deeply grounded in him; the musical connection comes from within.

"He has an incredible technique, but there is always a playful quality, connecting us more deeply to each other. He’s never intimidating."

Gustavo’s strengths, says Gupta, will always adapt to the piece at hand.

"He approaches everything with such reverence that he makes it part of his vernacular."

"What he communicates is just a pure love of the music. He brings patience, humour, and good grace; and he’s hilarious."

With every orchestra he meets, Gustavo establishes a human connection that is fundamental to the way that he makes music. Recalling an early career debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Bonn, he describes a situation of mutual exchange that has remained a constant in his working life.

"They were very open with me, which is important. I learned a lot, and I also gave them some of my ideas. It’s wonderful when you feel the same way; and this is what I always feel with my orchestra. We need to feel things together; it is the situation of a group."

"When you start work on a piece, you have the inspiration of the music. But also, when you see the orchestra, they give you further inspiration. You can feel their emotion. In rehearsal, of course, you work on the details. But in the end, it’s not only my inspiration. It’s the inspiration of every single person in the orchestra. Playing."

A playful approach to playing music is fundamental to Gustavo’s style, but it is also, always, an earnest matter.

"When you play music, you are in the moment - it’s not time any more. There’s an element that is utopic. It is real. And it’s beauty."

"At the same time, you have to try to maintain excellence. We are not creating; we are re-creating. And in that we have to be as close as possible to the genius of the composer - to understand the mind of the composer, and to share that with the orchestra - to do that at the best possible level."

Martin Chalifour, now in his 19th season as concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, speaks of his orchestra under Dudamel as enjoying a period of constant transformation and rejuvenation.

"He has transmitted the capacity to listen - to adjust, to play in style. It’s a language of total trust. The musical line is clear, and the balance is excellent."

"He’s an unashamedly good dancer, and he’s comfortable with his body. He’s physically confident in how he translates his emotions. He’s very musically true. He’s an athlete and a poet. And he brings a measure of vulnerability. His heart is out there."

Chapter 3

A Better World through Music

Music Is the Ideal Tool for Social Change

In every aspect of his work, Gustavo Dudamel is driven by a vision of music as a social force.

Everyone in the world, he believes, deserves access to the world of the symphony orchestra, and everyone can benefit from the encounter. His success has inspired hundreds of new initiatives around the world.

Wherever he goes to conduct, Gustavo Dudamel strives to bring a social element to his work. Whether guest conducting youth orchestras, encouraging socially-motivated music projects, or ensuring that young people from disadvantaged communities have access to his concerts, Gustavo consistently takes time to realize his vision of music as a means towards building a better world.

Gustavo is chief conductor of the national flagship Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, a post for which he accepts no conducting fees in Venezuela. He also ensures that all soloists and guests who come from other countries to work in Venezuela donate their time to do so.

In Los Angeles, Gustavo has been a key figure in the launch of YOLA, the Youth Orchestra program that has already expanded to include over 600 children from underserved communities.

"We are now going for our third orchestra, and it’s amazing how the children have changed - personally, socially, and also artistically. It’s not just that they now play in tune. It’s also that they are thinking through music to build a life.

"I have just been to hear the youngest orchestra - 90 children playing with their parents, dreaming with their music. How beautiful, how crazy!"

In Sweden, where he was principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra for half a decade, he oversaw the founding of an El Sistema initiative on the outskirts of Gothenburg in Hammarkullen; he has supported the Glasgow-based Big Noise, a Scottish El Sistema project; and has appeared with the latter in both Scotland and in Venezuela.

Trumpeter Thomas Clamor, a former member of the Berlin Philharmonic and current artistic director of the German Brass Academy, has worked regularly in Venezuela for over a dozen years, and followed Gustavo’s career closely.

"He grew up in this system, which is a socio-cultural project that is 39 years old," says Clamor. "He grew up knowing that you can use music as a means to the end of communicating better life perspectives to people. He has seen this in his own life."

"Even now, after he has become such a wonderful conductor, internationally in demand, the road always leads him back home. He is always there for his system and the children that are participating; he has an incredible love for and connection to them. And for them he would do anything.

"Many people have grown up in this system and made something of their lives. And Gustavo has worked in so many different cities, with so many different orchestras, that he has been able to understand again and again how possible it is to really achieve something in social terms."

For Gustavo, the social application of music is a logical extension of orchestral music everywhere.

"It’s amazing to see the places where El Sistema is happening right now," Gustavo says. "We could never have dreamed of it. But then you see that it’s about something really important - something that has been missing."

"It’s beauty. It’s something that can be utopic, and it runs counter to the pragmatic way that we tend to work. We are losing our sense of how to enjoy life. But when you are playing music, you are completely outside of the constraints time. And you are enjoying it. That’s beauty."

Our children have the right to have access to beauty.

"Sweden is a very stable society, but many of the issues are the same. In Japan, in China, in South America and in Europe, bad free time is an issue for our children. It is the kind of time where you lose the attention of your child, and then things can happen which are not productive to building responsible members of society.

"In some countries, you have poor people and criminality; in other countries, you have young people committing suicide because they don’t believe in their future.

"It’s a kind of social chaos. We have to give our children the chance to create and to have access to art, because art is existential.

"I see it all the time in Venezuela. A lot of the children in the orchestras come from the streets. They come from an environment full of traumatic things - crime, drugs, family problems. But when you play, you have not only the notes, but also what is contained within the notes. I think that there is something powerful within music that helps children to change their lives. You listen, and you can feel it. You don’t have to explain it. And this is beautiful. It is something that everybody needs.

"I cannot say that music is the only thing that will save the world. But I’m saying that we have to put art somewhere far more central to the main sense of our society.

"In my country, the audience is full of divisions. But when we play, we are united. Music is a symbol of unity. It’s only one country; and it’s only one world, in the end."

Chapter 4


Making Music Together

Orchestral musicians, soloists, and singers all speak of Gustavo Dudamel’s exceptional ability to work hard and have fun simultaneously when he is making music.

"Gustavo Dudamel is one of the most natural musicians I have ever met," says Swedish contralto Anna Larsson. "By that, I mean that he communicates totally through music, which makes it incredibly easy to work with him."

Larsson has sung with Dudamel in Sweden, London, Los Angeles, Caracas, and Salzburg; but she still vividly recalls her first concert with him in Tel Aviv, when Gustavo replaced an ailing Zubin Mehta at the last moment with the Israel Philharmonic.

"I remember feeling a bit disappointed, because I had been so happy at the thought of working with Zubin. But then I came to meet him, and I was like, wow! He was totally confident, and very relaxed, which is a rare combination when you first meet a conductor. And very happy to make music. I remember texting my husband right after working with him to say, ‘This guy is fantastic! He just IS music!’

"He has an instinctive understanding of singers and singing, which is not common with conductors. He understands about breathing, and his conducting is completely alive - it’s just communicating there and then, in that moment. He always helps singers, which means that in the end we sing better."

Pianist Emanuel Ax also speaks of Gustavo’s ability to react within an instant.

"I think he is such a wonderful musician that the whole idea of accompanying doesn’t really enter into it. I think that he strives towards a common goal with the orchestra and the soloist. You’re all heading for the same thing, so everyone is participating. And I think he brings out the best of the personality of each orchestra that he works with. The players in the orchestra are able to express themselves, because they’re joining in, rather than being directed.

"I think that in the deep musical sense, what he brings out is almost unprecedented. He’s something special."

Thomas Clamor, artistic director of the German Brass Academy, emphasizes the fact that in addition to his natural musicianship, Gustavo is an extremely hard worker.

"He has intuitive musicianship, he’s unbelievably enthusiastic, he’s incredibly hard-working, and extraordinarily conscientious," he says.

"He works meticulously, and he doesn’t miss any detail that’s in the score. One of the most extraordinary things I ever saw from a conductor in my entire life was when he directed an entire Mahler cycle, one after the other, every evening, all 10 symphonies, first in Los Angeles and then two days later in Caracas - and all of it by heart. It’s a complete mystery to me how anybody can do that. It’s incomprehensible, incredible. Sensational."

Christoph Koncz, principal second violin of the Vienna Philharmonic and himself a conductor, is equally fascinated by Gustavo’s feats of memory.

"It’s not only that he conducts all this different repertoire from memory. He also picks up the bar numbers and the rehearsal letters, and he’ll always remember exactly where he is. That’s very impressive.

"I asked him how he does it. And he said that Maestro Abreu taught him, and they basically worked on the score backwards. So he had to follow the melody and sing it from the end to the beginning. In this way, you really remember how it goes. That’s actually a very difficult exercise; everybody is welcome to try this!"

The ability to memorize is, says Anna Larsson, a key aspect of Gustavo’s musicianship.

"Because he is an instinctive kind of musician, it’s much easier for him not to have to lock his intellect into looking at paper with dots on it, because that’s only the map - it’s not the reality. The reality is what we have when we are making music in the moment.

"It’s like when you draw a map of dancing, with little feet and numbers on it. It’s just a map. Reality is alive. The body begins to move, and you feel it, and it really expresses something.

"Many people who wouldn’t normally listen to classical music enjoy listening when Gustavo is conducting, because then the core of the music comes out, and we understand. When children play, it is in a timeless universe. It just happens. And Gustavo is directly in touch with that kind of creativity. As a listener you immediately connect with it, and you are drawn into the story that he tells."

Chapter 5

Family Matters

“Becoming a father has changed my life.”

Gustavo Dudamel’s irrepressible grin tangles with something more serious when he talks about his family. The birth of his first son has changed his life, he says. Wherever he travels, staying in touch is central to his life.

A child of the smartphone generation, Gustavo Dudamel’s communication tools are never far from his grasp, no matter where he is. Whether his family is a few blocks or an entire continent away, technology brings them closer, and Gustavo relishes the messages, images and calls when they cannot be physically together.

It takes very little provocation to get Gustavo to pull out his phone and display photographs of their young son, Martín. The child clearly combines his father’s exuberance with his mother’s grace; it is not difficult to respond with warmth to the images. Gustavo glows visibly.

"Becoming a father has changed my life. It is incredible to see the world again through the eyes of a child; and it has also completely altered my view of the future and of our responsibility.

"We have to make the world a better place for our children. We cannot stand back and do nothing.

"I do what I can through music, because it’s what I do, and it’s what I understand. And through music, how many lives in Venezuela and now around the whole world have been changed?

"We have to give our children the chance to be creative and to access art, because art is important."

With the affirmation of the intensely positive relationship with music that he himself enjoyed as a child, and the example of the countless lives he has seen influenced since then, Gustavo is convinced that his music-making is the greatest thing he can do for his son.

"I do it for Martín. For him, I try to build the best world that I possibly can."

Thomas Clamor, former member of the Berlin Philharmonic, has known Gustavo since he was a teenager.

"For everybody, family is important," Clamor says. "In Gustavo’s situation, as I have observed it, family plays a very crucial role. Gustavo is a person who needs harmony, and he gets it from his family. He likes to have his family near him, his grandmother, too, I know that; but also his friends."

Andreas Ottensamer, principal clarinetist with the Berliner Philharmoniker, has worked with Gustavo both as an orchestral member and as a soloist.

"Of course we all know that he has a full schedule, but he has not neglected the personal side of his life," Ottensamer says. "If you travel a lot, you must also have something which gives you personal stability. Looking forward to coming back home is always something that gives you energy when you are away. For Gustavo, I think home is where his family and friends are, and this, of course, is a great advantage."

Chapter 6

New Music and the Future

A tireless champion of new music, Gustavo Dudamel has presided over countless world premieres, worked closely with composers, and written his own scores.

When he conducts the music of Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel is well aware of the fact that composers themselves conducted their music with this orchestra.

"It’s amazing, and it’s a privilege," he says. "They hold these traditions. It’s in their genes, and you can feel that."

At the same time, he feels it equally important to include the work of living composers on his programs. Strauss and Mahler’s music was new in its day, and without a cultural willingness to play midwife to new works, we would have no musical heritage today.

In his five years at the helm of the LA Philharmonic, Gustavo has seen his orchestra give world premieres to almost 60 new works, 20 of which he has conducted himself.

"That’s a commitment to the future, and a commitment to society," New York Times journalist Michael Cooper comments at a 2014 Times Talk. The subject is John Adams’s "The Gospel According to the Other Mary", a major new work for composer, orchestra and conductor alike.

"To be close to the composer’s mind is a rare privilege," Gustavo observes. "Working together was beautiful. It’s like having Beethoven next to you - except that John Adams can hear!"

Pianist Emanuel Ax, who performed the world premiere of Andrew Norman’s "Release" with Gustavo in May of 2014, sees in him not only a passionate advocate of new music, but also an ambassador for the future.

"He was wonderful with the new score, very enthusiastic, very interested. I heard him conductor ‘The Gospel According to the Other Mary’, and I thought it was an incredible accomplishment on every level.

"I think the future for Gustavo is completely without limits. I think he’s going to be one of the truly important figures in the history of music.

Apart from his conducting, there’s also the incredible work that he’s doing with young people in Los Angeles through YOLA. He is an inspiration for the Spanish-speaking population in cities like Los Angeles. He brings a whole different culture to the music of Brahms, and he brings people who love Brahms to the music of great Spanish-speaking composers. It’s a fantastic explosion, and I hope to live to be old enough to see a lot more of that."

Chapter 7

Looking Ahead

Building towards a Future Vision

As a true Venezuelan, Gustavo Dudamel knows how to live in the moment. But as a protege of José Antonio Abreu, he also knows how to build towards a future vision. For him, this is no contradiction.

I know that tomorrow I have a rehearsal. In that sense I really live from day to day. But at the same time, I know that in 2016 I will be conducting an opera in a particular place. That long-term sense is important, because it’s related."

Gustavo views his current working life with a profound sense of contentment.

"I’m the music director in Los Angeles until 2018," he says. "And I’m very happy there. I have my relationship with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. It’s more than 15 years now, and that’s great.

"I’m really grateful to have a good relationship with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics. What more could you ask for?"

Gustavo’s guest conducting engagements take him from La Scala, Milan to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; from a pop-up concert hall in the Tsunami-affected region of Sendai, Japan to an airfield for a concert with Panamanian salsa singer Rubén Blades in the center of Caracas. Complete Mahler cycles in Los Angeles and Caracas, a cycle of Beethoven symphonies in iconic European concert venues, and premieres of works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Mackey, Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen are all part of his recent and forthcoming schedule. Wagner’s Ring looms on the horizon.

Through all of that, his commitment to social change through music remains central.

"To pass on the message of El Sistema is also important to me, and I will always keep fighting for that, in the best sense - there is no doubt about that."

Gustavo finds inspiration from his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, the man who dreamed El Sistema into life four decades ago. It is a visionary power that he still sees in action.

"I remember when Maestro Abreu brought me to an empty piece of land in Caracas, and he walked into the middle, and said, ‘The hall will be here.’ And I was, like, ‘Great!’ Two years later they were starting to build.

"When there was nothing there but concrete foundations, we walked in wearing hard hats, and he said, ‘Now we will try the acoustic.’ And I thought, ‘Which acoustic?’ But he brought in a brass ensemble, and said, ‘It’s a great acoustic!’ Two years later, the building was finished. The acoustic was wonderful; it’s a great, great hall. It is like home for us in the most important sense of the word.

"His vision is extraordinary. And you learn that, and you take it with you."

Trumpeter Thomas Clamor, artistic director of the German Brass Academy, believes that Gustavo has a unique role to play for the future of music as a force for social development.

"Wherever in the world Gustavo is, in Germany or the US, South America or Scandinavia, whether he is with children, amateurs or professionals, he has a unique humanity, and he can pass on musical information which can be understood by everybody, regardless of the culture that they come from.

"He is the most popular ambassador to have grown out of Venezuela’s system of music education, and he is a role model. He is an incredible example of the fact that music education as a means of social development can work wonderfully. That’s a very, very important impulse for every country.

"He lives in the service of music, with an incredible modesty and a profound sense of gratitude for the fact that music education made his career path possible. He has not forgotten where he came from; on the contrary. He has a wonderful, entirely human way to communicate about music, and to ensure that people find joy in making music. That’s an extraordinary gift. It gives children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds courage, because they can say: One of us made it. That is just one of many reasons for which he is loved all around the world for what he does."