The Music is a River
Dudamel on Beethoven
At 24, Gustavo Dudamel has engagements with leading orchestras from Berlin to Los Angeles, Milan to London. He is beyond doubt one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. But just two years ago, the slight Venezuelan had never conducted a European orchestra.
A spectacular win at the 2004 Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg pushed Dudamel into the international spotlight. A few months later, he sprang in for the ailing Frans Brüggen to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in the closing concert of Bonn's prestigious Beethoven Festival. The concert was such a success that he was invited to return the following year, this time with his own ensemble, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The response was intense. This was a new way of looking at Beethoven, a New World freshness that the old world badly needed.
But Germany was not new territory for Dudamel. He had made his debut in Berlin's Philharmonie with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as an 18-year-old, a year after taking on the job of music director. That appointment, in turn, was a natural development for someone who had been appointed music director of Venezuela's Amadeus Chamber Orchestra as a 14-year-old. Such precocity is, as Dudamel tells it, quite normal in his home country. Only after taking up the Amadeus post did he begin formal instruction, having fallen into conducting quite by accident. At a rehearsal of the youth orchestra in his home town of Barquisimeto, the 12-year-old Dudamel stepped onto the empty podium when the conductor was ill.
“I just thought, 'I can do this'. I remember it vividly. It was funny, because my friends were playing, and they all laughed. But five minutes later, it was different. They thought, 'OK, we are working. He is the conductor now.' Five months later they gave me the assistant position."
What might seem extravagant hubris in a European context, where conducting is a profession first approached by tertiary students, was normal in the context of Venezuela's revolutionary national music education system (the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela - Fesojiv, or the sistema for short). There children begin to take music lessons as young as two, and youngsters are often encouraged to try their hand at conducting. “I was 12, but I remember that I had a friend who was 8, and he was already conducting our orchestra," says Dudamel.
Dudamel joined the sistema as a 10-year-old, hoping to play the trombone. “I knew the trombone because of salsa and popular music. But my arms were too short. My friends had violins, so I thought, 'well, why not?'"
But his interest in music began much earlier, encouraged by his trombonist father. An aunt brought a miniature score of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony back from a trip to the US when Dudamel was six years old, and it became his favourite book. He read it at every opportunity, and lined up his tin soldiers in orchestral formation, conducting them with vehemence.
“Then I used to do my own rehearsals with CDs. Beautiful orchestras that I could conduct in my home! I would put the CD on pause and tell the players what they could do better. And I had a captive audience - my family had to watch me."
Though he laughs, Dudamel also credits the sistema with saving him from a life on the streets. “Music certainly changed my life. I can look back now and see that many of the boys of my age went on to become involved in drugs and crime. Those who played music did not."
When he was 14, Dudamel began to receive formal conducting lessons from Rodolfo Saglimbeni. At 17, he started to study with José Antonio Abreu, founder and guiding spirit of the Venezuelan sistema. Abreu, with his profoundly humanitarian philosophy and deep commitment to music as a force of social change in Venezuela, remains a seminal influence in Dudamel's life.
With it comes an absolute faith in the fact that music changes lives, a fact which colours both musical approach and performance style in Venezuela. And to Dudamel, there is no composer who epitomizes this more than Beethoven. “Every year in Caracas we have a Beethoven festival", he explains. “Beethoven is a symbol for us in Venezuela. This music is very important for young people. For all of humanity, of course, but for young people especially. A professional orchestra has played these symphonies hundreds of times. For us it's new music. And it's a new vision of the music, because the players don't have an existing version in their heads.
“The Fifth Symphony is not just about the notes. Everybody knows the opening motif. It is fate, it's destiny, and that's something important for everybody. You don't need to explain it. It's inside the notes, and you can feel it. The symphony opens with anger. But if you play it all the way through, following the line of development, you come to the last movement, which ends with hope.
“You listen, and you can feel this in the music. A lot of the children come from the street. They have experienced all these horrible things, crime and drugs and family problems. But when they play this music, they have something special. They all share this hope. And it becomes something amazing."
Dudamel is aware of the magnitude of the risk involved in choosing Beethoven for his debut recording with Deutsche Grammophon. It is not, he explains, that he feels he and his orchestra have more to say about this repertoire than anybody else, but simply that they have their own voice.
“If you go into a CD shop, you will find thousands of recordings of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. We are a youth orchestra. Why start with such a difficult composer? But then I thought, why not? It is necessary to know Beethoven when you are young. Technically, it is important for the development of your sound. And then there is the simple fact that Beethoven is a genius. The Fifth Symphony is about destiny, about the future. And the Seventh is sheer joy. The energy in this music is fantastic for young musicians.
“Of course Beethoven himself could never have heard his music played by such a large symphony orchestra. But I am sure he would have loved it if he'd had the chance. One of the things that is special about this orchestra is that they can play a piano similar to a small orchestra. And a forte similar to either a small orchestra or a large orchestra. It is easy to work with these musicians, because they understand things, and they are very committed.
“Of course, these are not my last versions of these symphonies. Already, since recording them, we play them differently. Because music is a river, you know? It's not the same water from one day to the next. It's not a glass with water inside. And it's good to play this music now."
1. Allegro con brio (Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67)
2. Andante con moto (Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67)
3. Allegro (Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67)
4. Allegro (Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67)
5. Allegro (Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67)
6. Allegretto (Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92)
7. Presto - Assai meno presto (Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92)
8. Allegro con brio (Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92)