A Great Human Event
"You have to start small to achieve big things," says conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whose career, from beginnings in his beloved Venezuela to the great concert halls of the world, is living testament to this credo. In January and February 2012, those "big things" reached their most extraordinary dimensions yet in a five-week cultural, musical, social and personal odyssey known as "The Mahler Project".
"Crazy and amazing" is how Dudamel once described his "long-held dream" to perform all of Gustav Mahler's completed symphonies on the centennial of the composer's death. This dream came true when Dudamel brought together both sides of his "musical family," the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra - comprised of his fellow graduates of El Sistema, Venezuela's remarkable system of national music education - for an undertaking of breathtaking ambition: two orchestras; two cities; two countries; nine-and-a-half symphonies - each performed in Los Angeles and in Caracas. Scores of education and community outreach projects, two hundred instrumentalists, almost two thousand singers, ten soloists. And in the middle of it all, one conductor.
Certainly it is impossible to think of another musician who could have pulled off this feat other than Dudamel. "It was a huge challenge but it was something Gustavo felt was so important to do," explains Deborah Borda, President of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Dudamel has been Music Director since 2009. "There's no doubt he has charisma, magnetism, and remarkable depths of artistic comprehension, but Gustavo is also a visionary leader." Indeed, Dudamel's Mahler Project was not just another concert series, but a vivid re-imagination of the possibilities for cross-cultural musical collaboration. "It was tremendous," Borda recalls, "to see people of two countries, two cities, and two orchestras united in a positive vision for the future, for their culture, for their communities, through music."
At the heart of this monumental endeavour in Caracas, sandwiched between gripping accounts of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with the Bolívars and the Ninth Symphony with the LA Phil, was a performance of Mahler's Eighth so epic that its usual nickname, "the Symphony of a Thousand," became an ironic understatement. "Like nirvana" is how Dudamel describes the sea of musical sound created by the combined LA Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony orchestras together with a chorus comprised of El Sistema students from núcleos (local community music schools) across Venezuela. So gargantuan was the mass of voices that even the choir mistress, Lourdes Sànchez, could not keep count of how many kids were actually onstage. "Maybe twelve hundred, maybe thirteen hundred?" she suggests. "It's like flying an Airbus 380," says Dudamel with a smile, "you are taking a lot of people with you."
If the numbers seem staggering to American and European audiences, to Venezuelans all this is quite normal. This is a country, after all, in which almost 400,000 children are engaged in free, comprehensive music-education programmes. And with more than 80% of them hailing from the country's poorest, lowest-strata barrios, they are living proof of El Sistema founder JosÃ© Antonio Abreu's visionary conviction that "when you give a poor child a musical instrument, he is no longer poor."
On stage in Caracas, despite markedly different backgrounds and circumstances, the Venezuelan musicians and their American counterparts seemed to revel in sharing a desk and learning from one another. "The most important thing," says Bolívar concertmaster, Alejandro Carreño, "is that we are united by one idea - the idea of making beauty together." "It was such a pleasure to perform with our Venezuelan colleagues," enthuses Joanne Pearce Martin, the LA Phil's keyboardist. "We formed wonderful and lasting friendships. They are such an exuberant bunch of musicians and they have such a wonderful, youthful, generous spirit. And, of course, Gustavo inspires us all with his incredible energy."
The evening of that remarkable Eighth Symphony performance, Caraqueños young and old flooded in their thousands to the Teatro Teresa Carreño. The jubilant, euphoric atmosphere surrounding the event was more akin to a giant football match or rock concert than a night at the symphony. Among the hordes, a father held his little boy on his shoulders. They had walked from the barrio just up the hillside. The little boy studies violin at a local núcleo and, said his father, "one day he wants to grow up to be a great musician like Gustavo".
From small beginnings to the heights of nirvana, such is the message and legacy of the Mahler Project. "You have to be really thankful to life," says Dudamel, "to have the chance to conduct a symphony like the Mahler Eighth under these conditions. It is not only a great musical but a great human event." Summarizing the realization of this biggest of dreams not only as an epic personal and musical accomplishment but as a metaphor for a better world, Dudamel reflects: "This project is the symbol of union - the symbol of how love, how art,how two orchestras and a thousand singers can become one."