“A musical reference point for my life” Dudamel’s Mahler 5
It would be a peculiarly stony-hearted listener who could leave a performance by Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra unaffected. If you are lucky enough to witness a live concert by this ensemble of over 100, rapt-faced young musicians, aged up to about 25, it is not so much an “orchestra” that you experience as a barrage of elemental, visceral sound. Indeed the vitality of this music-making, which also comes through with full intensity on a recording, renders utterly inadequate words such as “urgent” and “passionate”. Critics often talk of a piece of music sounding freshly minted in the hands of particular musicians, as if it had been written yesterday. With these young people, the product of a unique music education project in operation for just over 30 years, that phrase is literally true: there is a virginal freshness to their playing, without the freight of a local performance tradition, without prejudice or preconception.
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is himself a product of the sistema, as this radical social-action project is known. It now works with 250,000 young musicians throughout Venezuela, aiming to give children from all walks of life a sense of purpose and pride through intensive musical training. Dudamel was born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, in Lara state, some 350 km (220 miles) west of Caracas. His parents noticed his early fascination with music, initially via the salsa, without which no Venezuelan party would be complete. He started on the violin at the age of ten and soon began conducting.
The sistema actively encourages kids to pick up a baton, and many of the children’s chamber groups and orchestras are conducted by young people – there is no prevailing belief that conducting well somehow depends on maturity and may only be hazarded as a postgraduate study. “I was assistant conductor of the local chamber orchestra at 13 – that was normal. I was conducting the Barquisimeto Youth Orchestra aged 14 – that was normal. When I was 17, I was made music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra – that was normal,” says Dudamel, although we may factor in some self-deprecation here from this polite young man with his ready grin and talent for disarming orchestral musicians twice his age.
From 1999 he studied with Maestro José Antonio Abreu, the sistema’s creator and presiding genius, a man whose quiet demeanour belies a piercing charisma, an almost monkish zeal, and a political astuteness that has secured funding for the sistema from successive governments for over three decades. It was at Abreu’s suggestion that Dudamel began to study Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which would become a crucial piece for him: in 2004 he conducted it in Germany at the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition – and won.
At a stroke his career entered a new phase. Offers to work with some of the great orchestras of the world came flooding in. Close ties were forged with three important musical influences: Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim. In 2005 Dudamel made his London Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at two weeks’ notice, covering the indisposition of Neeme Järvi. At 24, he was the third-youngest conductor, after Rattle and Daniel Harding, ever to have performed at the Proms. In April of the following year he accepted the post of principal conductor at Gothenburg.
Abbado’s has been a particularly deep influence on Dudamel, not least in the preparation of Mahler 5. “He conducted the [Simón Bolívar] orchestra in this piece, and I had the chance to study it with him over the winter of 2004 – 5,” says Dudamel. “We had the opportunity to exchange ideas and thoughts; Claudio of course has an endless knowledge of the piece, and we worked very hard and very deep. But the first great reference was Maestro Abreu. These two form the basis of everything.”
This is clearly an ambitious undertaking for a youth orchestra – not only in matters of interpretation but also in the purely technical demands it places on individual musicians, not least the brass section. On the other hand, the sheer number of the Simón Bolívar musicians, says Dudamel, “offers us the great opportunity of playing the symphony with a Mahler-scale orchestra.
“It’s a little like it was with Beethoven [whose Fifth and Seventh symphonies the orchestra has also recorded for Deutsche Grammophon],” he adds. “Just as it is a dream for youth orchestras to play Beethoven, so it is with Mahler. Yes, there are individual difficulties. Each instrument is, at times, like a soloist. But the challenge originated with the orchestral musicians themselves. They really wanted to do this piece. I simply had to follow. As for me, the symphony means a huge amount, since it’s the work with which I won the Mahler competition in Bamberg. Because of that, it has become a musical reference point for my life.”
Explaining his approach to the symphony, Dudamel says: “What everyone remembers about this work is the Adagietto. But for me the important thing is that movement’s position within the work. One has to think of the structure as a whole, of how it is possible that a work that begins with a funeral march develops into a second movement filled with despair, then turns into a third movement filled with joy and happiness, which then grows and connects with love in the Adagietto, and then, by the end of the fifth movement, has arrived at hope.
“Hints of this mood of hope have occurred in the second movement, but at that point the phrases collapse and the mood reverts back to desperation. When this music returns in the final movement, the sense has become: ‘Now I can truly hope; before I could not.’ In other words the whole piece is a complex progression. There is a search for destiny in Mahler’s Fifth, with a sign of that already to be heard in the fanfare rhythm that opens the Trauermarsch, echoing the rhythm of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.”
As Gustavo Dudamel sees it, the Fifth is a “great challenge; a symphony where you really have to search to find the centre. The orchestra has to have tremendous technique and huge sensitivity: there are extremes of happiness, sadness, depression and hope in this work. Some people say that you have to have lived many years to have experienced all that emotion and be able to communicate it. I believe the most important thing is simply to feel it and play.”
1. Trauermarsch (In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt - Plötzlich schneller. Leidenschaftlich. Wild - Tempo I)
2. Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz - Bedeutend langsamer - Tempo I subito
3. Scherzo (Kräftig, nicht zu schnell)
4. Adagietto (Sehr langsam)
5. Rondo-Finale (Allegro)