The rocker and ‘The Dude’
I played the Doors card to get into the green room. “Do you think the maestro [Gustavo Dudamel] would want to meet Jim Morrison’s drummer?” I said to security.
On that note, my girlfriend and I were whisked backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall with film composer Charles Bernstein and his wife. Then we had to wait. And wait. “The Dude,” as in the hot dog named after him at Pink’s, was changing from his tuxedo into a polo shirt and slacks after conducting an incredibly powerful “Symphonie Fantastique” by Hector Berlioz.
When we finally were led into the inner sanctum, it was packed with classical music’s literati. Plácido Domingo’s son introduced himself, and the rest of the crowd looked very important. Not as important as the man of the hour (or 21st century), who smiled at me and then took my hand and bowed. His curly dark mop top was draped over my wrist, and he wouldn’t rise. It was embarrassing. For almost a minute he stayed down there. It was incredibly flattering, and reflective of the range of the young man’s musical taste. (Later I read yet another article on the L.A. Phil’s new 28-year-old conductor in which he said he was well aware of Led Zeppelin, salsa and jazz.)
After he rose, I proceeded with the script I’d rehearsed in my head. “Gustavo, I didn’t come here because of your long hair!” The entire room roared. Way before rock ‘n’ rollers let their locks drape over their ears, classical music was “tagged” with the moniker: “music for longhairs.” Possibly some rock musicians of the British Invasion during the ‘60s were inspired by the classical lads. The Kinks, the Stones and the Zombies certainly looked like Beethoven with their locks dangling over sport jackets and ruffled shirts.
Our two genres, classical and rock, are connected. Some stuffed shirts might think connected by the hair only, but I was out to prove otherwise. “I played timpani on the Berlioz piece in high school, so I know your world.” The Venezuelan wunderkind smiled broadly. He graciously, even enthusiastically, posed for photos with everyone, Eloísa Maturén, Gustavo’s strikingly tall and beautiful wife, being the volunteer shutterbug.
This was months ago when he guest conducted, and I’m not sure he had yet been secured as the next podium meister. I’d caught his interview on “60 Minutes” and was impressed by his humility. The interviewer tried to get him to acknowledge his stature as the world’s most sought-after conductor, but he just kept saying, “I have much to learn . . . I have much to learn.” I checked out his YouTube video with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and was enthralled. He had the young musicians standing up and dancing while playing! So I knew before most that someone special was on his way from Caracas to “Disneyland.”
A year later was Dudamel’s gala inaugural concert, which I had decided to skip because of the flood of celebrities looking for PR (although writing this puts me in the same camp!).
Then an old film school friend of Jim Morrison’s, Alain Ronay, sent me an e-mail. He relayed the message that the L.A. Phil was going to perform Berio’s “Rendering” and “Folk Songs.” I e-mailed my dear friend Cristina Berio,the daughter of Italian composer Luciano Berio and mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. Cristina said the orchestra’s longtime general manager, Ernest Fleischmann, had introduced her to Dudamel, and Gustavo showed much respect for her dad’s music, so getting tickets and going backstage shouldn’t be too hard. The anticipated night came, and we met downtown at Frank Gehry’s steel rosebud. Accompanying Cristina was Susan Oyama, Berio’s second wife. She had flown in from New York. (The composer had passed in 2003.)
We entered the glorious wooden enclave, an auditorium so inviting that it almost didn’t matter what you heard. Inside was warm and womblike. The maestro came out to huge applause, and he hadn’t conducted a note yet. You could feel the orchestra’s admiration for him already. He had cropped his wild hair somewhat and put on a few pounds since my girlfriend and I saw him a year before. Even with its shorter length, the hair seemed uncontainable. Maybe corralled, the hair wouldn’t compete as much with the arms for control of the orchestra. Still, the hair sort of underscored everything his arms were saying.
Dudamel’s rendering of the Berio / Schubert piece was like a woven tapestry of the traditional and the marginal. Berio’s courage to tackle completing Schubert’s 10th with eerie glue was transcendental.
Sitting next to me, Cristina squirmed a bit during the next piece. No wonder. Her dad was writing “Folk Songs” when Cristina’s parents were breaking up. Maestro Berio had conducted her mother and this very orchestra when it premiered 35 years ago. After intermission, Dudamel “finished” Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” The piece doesn’t call for the drama of Berlioz, so the L.A. Phil’s new lead conducted with his eyebrows. And his fingertips. Pianissimo. A little kitty kneading the air . . . then playing with a small mouse. Then the tempo would increase, and he would do a little sashay from side to side, prancing as if marching in place. Then the demonic would rise up for the fortissimo, and his whole body would pounce on the orchestra, exacting its prey of sound. I know a couple members of the orchestra, and they say even though he is not the composer, it feels like he is creating the music in the moment -- like jazz.
I was there in 1962 when Zubin Mehta first picked up the baton at the old L.A. Philharmonic, stomping on the podium with his Spanish boots, jostling the Dorothy Chandler types, but the Dude seems to have captured everyone. Maybe the times are more relaxed . . . or people are more open. It is quite amazing to me that, emulating his youth, Gustavo is bringing Youth Orchestra L.A. to kids whose family income status would prevent such exposure. It certainly changed my life. As a 14-year-old music student at Daniel Webster Junior High School, I was exposed to a sentimental film on Johann Strauss.
“Tales of Vienna Woods” swept me away so much that I was swooning. Mr. Armour, the music teacher, noticed and told me he was going to screen it again if I wanted to stay. I sat in the empty hall with my professor, weeping over the “Blue Danube.” I was hooked.
When Gustavo was a 5-year-old, he set up his toy figures in a half-circle like an orchestra, putting one of them on a cardboard box (podium), and played classical records.
He told his mom not to mess up any of it because he was coming back later to do some more conducting. Putting our two childhood stories side by side, I am by no means saying that I am in the same league as the maestro. The only comparison is that we both wave our arms a lot and hold sticks. One more thing -- we mainline sound . . . the sound of music.
My second time in the green room was as thrilling as the first. A tired Gustavo perked right up when Cristina began speaking to him in Spanish.
She introduced Susan, and I encouraged Berio’s second wife to relay the story she had told me during intermission. Dudamel’s eyes brightened even more as Oyama said that Luciano wanted his connective tissue in “Rendering” to be like looking at a forest of trees, and then the fog comes in and eventually you can’t see the trees at all. The maestro hurried over to the coffee table where Berio’s score lay. (On more traditional pieces he usually conducts from memory!) He excitedly opened it to the section Susan was talking about, as she made a remark on how beautiful her ex-husband’s notation was. Like a little kid, Gustavo pointed to his handwritten notes: “I wrote ‘shadows’ . . . see “shadows!” He was pleased that he had channeled the composer.
So the City of Angels has been blessed. We almost missed capturing the Young Turk, the Chicago Symphony champing at the bit the day after he was committed to us. It seems right, though, with half our population being Latino. We won the lottery.
My prayer for him is the same as Susan Oyama’s. She remarked that she hopes he can survive “the United States,” meaning we’re a country that likes to build up celebrities, then knock them down. I think his humility will keep the helium from rising upstairs.
This line of thought prompted me to leave the green room with a parting remark. “Gustavo, much has happened to you since we met a year ago . . . “ His head quickly nodded up and down in agreement. “I have a suggestion . . . which you’ve already been doing . . . don’t forget to breathe!” The extremely gifted young man let out a huge laugh and said, “Please come back . . ., “ which we will certainly do . . . over and over.
I hope my new friend forgives me for this rant, still welcomes me into the green room, but it truly comes from love. Painters “see” the world; musicians “hear” it. When Dudamel is up on the podium, he truly is “inside” the music. It courses in his veins, mixing with his blood. In trying to coax out of his musicians his vision, he has said, “More blood. I need more blood!”
Densmore is a bestselling author, essayist and musician.