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Critic's Notebook

For Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema remains a source of joy and hope

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

Gustavo Dudamel's two-week stint at the Hollywood Bowl, which ends with a Mozart program on July 30, will be the culmination of his sixth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This summer is also the 10th anniversary of his U.S. conducting debut at the Bowl. He's familiar.

Indeed, internationally Dudamel comes closest of any conductor today to being a household name. His personal story as a product of Venezuela's El Sistema education program has entered into the world's cultural lore.

Yet during a public talk Monday between Dudamel and Deborah Borda at the Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood, the L.A. Phil president confessed to her music director — whom she signed when he was 26 — that she didn't really understand him.

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He laughed, not, it appeared, so much because he found that funny but because he knows it is true.

Keeping up with Dudamel has never been easy and gets harder all the time. He is no longer the beguiling, seemingly guileless and happy-go-lucky boy wonder who made conducting look easy and a sheer joy.

Now he is unmistakably an adult, and he has a responsibility that goes far beyond anything a star conductor has undertaken. That responsibility is not only toward a deepening understanding of music and using his position to convey its message but also toward using his position to serve society. The two are in no way disconnected.

"How are you?" I asked at the start of an hour-long conversation with Dudamel that began on his drive from the Stella Adler to Walt Disney Concert Hall and continued in his office at the hall.

"Very happy," he said cheerfully. "Very happy. Working a lot." It was exactly what Dudamel had said last time I spoke with him, in Japan in March at the end of his Asia tour with the L.A. Phil.

But he was forced to cancel concerts in June because of back pain. Since then, Venezuela's economic crisis has worsened and its relationship with the U.S. deteriorated, giving rise to new political protests. The Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero and others disenfranchised with the country's regime have increased their attempts to get him to join the opposition, despite the government's unwavering sponsorship of El Sistema. His mentor and father figure, José Antonio Abreu, is in failing health.

Dudamel's answer is still one of optimism, only now there's even more steely determination and urgency. In June he conducted Mahler's First Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic, and a critic in one of the leading newspapers, Der Tagesspiegel, wrote that anyone who can conduct a symphony of Mahler that way deserves a Nobel Prize.

He is deep into performing Beethoven's symphonies, having just done a cycle in Bogotá, Colombia, with his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (a cycle he will repeat at the beginning of the fall season in Disney sharing the nine symphonies between the L.A. Phil and the Bolívars).

He has conducted the symphonies since he was a teen, but he says he hadn't been prepared for how powerful the effect would be of living through the development of a great artist by conducting the nine symphonies in order. With what he feels is more mature appreciation of their meaning, Dudamel now sees in Beethoven's symphonies "a book of life."

Another benefit of Beethoven in Bogotá was that a doctor who came to the concerts diagnosed Dudamel's back problems as muscular strain, not something more serious. Although there are books on back pain management in Dudamel's office, he says that a series of injections has alleviated the symptoms.

What Dudamel can't stop talking about is having just conducted Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony in Caracas with a newly organized youth orchestra. The age of the 250 children ranges from 7 to 11. They performed the complete symphony. An 8-year-old nailed the piccolo solo in the Scherzo, one of the most difficult in the repertory.

"It's unreal. It's unreal. It's unreal." Dudamel can't stop repeating it. Apologizing for taking time away from the interview, he rummages through his bag for a DVD. Dudamel says he simply must show me part of the performance.

There they are, a vast army of children on a small screen. ("We need a new television," Dudamel notes, "this was Esa-Pekka's.") The cymbals look too large for the undersized percussionists to lift, but the kids whack them together like pros. String players compensate with miniature instruments. Trombonists figure out how to cope with instruments longer than their arms. Young children aren't supposed to be able master horns as these have.

Dudamel conducts with a grin, ear to ear. He says he couldn't stop smiling the whole time.

When asked whether the orchestras he played in at that age in Venezuela were as good, he looks at me like I'm crazy. "Nooooooo," he answers. "When we were 14, yes." Then he corrects himself. "No, when we were 16."

This vigorous, inspiring performance, Dudamel says, is his answer to his critics, especially those outside Venezuela who object to his continued participation in the troubled country.

"For me," he insists, "it's all about the children. Working with the children is incredible. You also can see the intellectual perception they can have."

When he asked in rehearsal for more expression, he says with the same grin as on camera, "They produced a sound that is a kind of magic. And it's a children's orchestra!

"I will tell you why I do what I do, and you have heard this from me a thousand times. The orchestra is a symbol of the union of the country.

"You have to see where these children are coming from. They have different religions. They are all touched by the economic situation because it touches everybody. But the son of an opposition leader and the daughter of a government minister sit in the same orchestra.

"And they keep playing!"

For Dudamel the way to lift El Sistema above national politics is to envision it as its own nation. He cites 700,000 children taking part all over the country, with even the smallest villages supporting an orchestra, and an administration of more than 11,000.

Because it's so huge, Dudamel explains, it is subject to all the differences and arguments you will find everywhere. "It's natural," he says. "You have problems. You have to work them out."

Ultimately, Dudamel believes, the scale, structure and success of El Sistema guarantee that it is too big and too necessary to fail. It has thrived for 40 years. It has become an example all around the world. Dudamel scoffs at the idea that whoever is in power would dare touch what is perhaps the most popular and effective program in the country.

All of this, and the inspiration of conducting the 250 children in Tchaikovsky, Dudamel reiterates, is what gives him and the country hope. The economy goes up and down, he observes, not El Sistema.

Dudamel divides his calendar mainly between Caracas and Los Angeles, the places where he says he feels he has the best conditions to work. And even most of his appearances in Europe the next season are tours with either the L.A. Phil or the Bolívars.

In August, he will head a Venezuelan invasion of Milan, which will include eight performances of "La Bohème" at La Scala with the Bolívars in the pit. Sistema will also bring several youth orchestras to Italy, including a concert with Dudamel again leading the Tchaikovsky Fourth with the 250-strong children's orchestra (which he says he is dying to bring to L.A.).

The Bolívars will also be the orchestra for one of next season's most anticipated opera productions — "West Side Story" with Cecilia Bartoli at Salzburg. Meanwhile, Dudamel will take the L.A. Phil on a European tour in the spring. His only major outside projects will be conducting Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" in Berlin and Puccini's "Turandot" in Vienna.

Dudamel also realizes that with Abreu's poor health, weightier responsibility falls on his shoulders as the face of Sistema.

"Now that I'm an adult, now that I'm a father, I understand the world a little better," he says. "And I understand sometimes more than people think I understand.

"You know when you are in a turbulent situation, you have to see beyond the turbulence instead of putting more things in the turbulence. That is Maestro Abreu's vision. In 1975, people said he was a crazy man. They said he was crazy 30 years ago. They said he was crazy 20 years ago. But now what he has done is a reality.

"And I'm telling you with my heart in my hand. I will keep working for this, because it is something very important not only for my country but for the world."

Twitter: @markswed

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