When Gustavo Dudamel made his U.S. debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005, word had already gotten out about the 24-year-old Venezuelan conductor who had won a major conducting competition in Germany the year before. Glancing around the box section of the amphitheater, you could see administrators from one major American orchestra after another who had come to check him out. But from the start, Dudamel seemed destined for L.A. That competition in Bamberg happened to have been headed by the former L.A. Phil executive director Ernest Fleischmann, and the orchestra’s music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who described Dudamel as “a conducting animal,” was on the jury.
Dudamel made his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut in January 2007 and four months later signed a contract to become the orchestra’s next music director, beginning with the 2009-10 season. By the time of that April 2007 announcement, Dudamel had become such a star that everyone from 60 Minutes to Al Jazeera chased him for interviews. It was the most spectacular rise in the history of classical music: A 20-something conductor from the Venezuelan backwaters of Barquisimeto had worked his way through the ranks of his country’s revolutionary El Sistema, a social program of music education for underprivileged kids, to become an international star.
Dudamel’s tenure with the L.A. Phil has proven similarly historic. Under Salonen the L.A. Phil had already become America’s visionary orchestra, and it had built Disney Hall, perhaps the most celebrated building of the twenty-first century. Dudamel extended the orchestra’s reach further artistically, commercially and—most important of all to him—into the community. He insisted that he begin his tenure with a free daylong concert at the Bowl that climaxed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He initiated Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), programs for inner-city and other children with no other access to music education that became a national model.
Dudamel’s international celebrity grew to the point he was given top billing with Europe’s most prestigious orchestras, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the continent’s great festivals. But all the while, his devotion to Venezuela and El Sistema has never lessened: He has continued be the public face of the organization and music director of its celebrated Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra.
Until last year, Dudamel divided his time between Los Angeles and Caracas, but his call for democratic elections led to attacks on the conductor from President Nicolás Maduro, so he has been spending more time in L.A. Dudamel says that he remains in daily telephone contact with El Sistema, however, and he now coaches young conductors via Skype. As artistic as well as music director of the L.A. Phil, he will oversee this year’s centennial season, which is the most ambitious season any orchestra has ever attempted, with more than 50 new commissioned works and an endless array of grand projects, including another free Bowl concert and a new YOLA Center in Inglewood designed by Frank Gehry for 2,000 students.
All this means that not only will Dudamel be spending more time in his West Hollywood home with his second wife, the Spanish film star María Valverde, whom he married a year ago, he will also be practically moving into his office at Disney Hall, where we met between rehearsals for a fully staged production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Next season he will conduct 20 different programs (double the number of the average music director) and a mind-boggling variety, from classics to new music to everything under the L.A. sun. He also has an Angeleno son, Martín, from his previous marriage, who was born in Los Angeles and who gives Dudamel another perspective on the local scene.
MS: In September you will begin your tenth season as music director of the Los Angles Philharmonic, and you have maintained a residence here as well as in Caracas. The political situation has made it difficult for you to return to Venezuela, but are there things about L.A. that remind you of your country?
GD: The people. I think L.A. is a very awake community, in the sense that you see a lot happening. When I come here to work, this is an environment that is very happy. Everybody has the same spirit that people do at the El Sistema center in Caracas. All the people are very active.
MS: Did it feel familiar from the day you made your U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl?
GD: Los Angeles is a city that at the beginning you don’t understand. It’s not a city that you fall in love with immediately. But when you understand it and you get into the community, you love it forever.
MS: What is it that you learned to understand and then love?
GD: Thinking about distances is a little different. Every time you have to take your car, you have to calculate how to go and how long it will take. But thank God I love to drive, because that is part of the beauty of this place. I love that you can be here, downtown, and then you can drive to the beach. Or to Hollywood. You drive two hours and you are in Big Bear. If you take Highway One, it’s unbelievable. The city brings to you the possibilities of everything. Then there is the way the cultural life of Los Angeles is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. What I love most is how everything can connect. For example, we are doing a project next season related to Fluxus [the 1950s and 1960s avant-garde international art movement in which Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik participated], and we can connect with the Getty, which has a great collection of this art. Everywhere it’s like that. We also have a lot of involvement with film music next season, projects around Stanley Kubrick and a John Williams night.
MS: You love the film world, right? And now you are married to an actress.
GD: That makes me love it even more. I have a lot of friends who are part of this amazing movie world, and next year we will celebrate this by participating in the Oscars broadcast for the first time.
MS: You are regularly invited to conduct the classics with the most exclusive Old World orchestras. In Los Angeles, however, you are free to branch out, so that along with all the standard repertoire you collaborate with performers from jazz and pop, world music and Broadway, as well as take on projects involving modern dance, Shakespearean actors, television and film stars, avant-garde theater and what not. Is that something that can happen only in L.A.?
GD: Completely. Los Angeles is a place where the tradition is of the new. You have to be flexible; you have to be open to evolve. I think that is the secret. I’m now here doing [Bernstein’s] Mass, and then I will do a long residency with the Vienna Philharmonic. At the same time, I’m listening all the time to Pink Floyd. I try to keep my body healthy, but I need this to keep my artistic spirit healthy. Of course, I have to say when I go to Vienna to work, I learn a lot from the tradition. It’s wonderful to rehearse in the Musikverein [Vienna’s famed concert hall] and then to walk to the archives and see the original manuscripts of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. I like being able to bring what I learn from that back here, and we create something new. It’s perfect. I cannot ask for more.
MS: How does the fact that you have an Angeleno six-year-old soninfluence your relationship with Los Angeles?
GD: One second—he’s not an Angeleno, he’s a very Angeleno. I teach him what I know of Los Angeles. He’s at the Colburn School across the street from Disney Hall for piano lessons on Thursdays. When I have a performance on that day, I take him to school. We have ice cream from a truck that’s always parked in front. We walk around the promenade. Then we come here to my office. We talk. We play some Nintendo. We watch a movie. He goes home. I do the concert. And now with María having moved here, I also have the chance to see what is exciting about the city in the eyes of somebody new.
MS: What do you like to show her?
GD: We go to the museums. We go to LACMA, the Getty when I don’t have concerts. We walk around. We hike a lot. When we lived in Los Feliz, we went to Griffith Park and the Observatory. Now we are very close to Laurel Canyon, and we walk there.
MS: What about other neighborhoods?
GD: I go a lot to the sea. In Venezuela we have that, so it’s very important to me. And we go everywhere to eat. Downtown is getting better and better. Japanese food, I love. Korean food, I love. The Latin feel of Los Angeles makes me feel at home. To go to a good Mexican restaurant, you go to the heart of the community, and I love that. There are Venezuelan places that are also really good. The other day we discovered a great Spanish restaurant that María found delicious. We go, too, to concerts: I don’t only come to conduct, I also go to listen. I love the Hollywood Bowl for that.
MS: You must be the first L.A. Phil music director to say you actually love the Bowl. All of your predecessors may have believed in the value of bringing classical music to mass audiences, but they all found it a significant challenge to cope with the outdoor acoustics and the atmosphere of picnicking.
GD: I really do love to go to concerts at the Bowl. You eat. You have some wine. You have John Williams there. Or you have the Beach Boys. It’s very inspiring. I don’t think there is another place that has a summer venue with all the things that we do at the Hollywood Bowl, with two full months of orchestra concerts and everything else. But the funny thing is that at the beginning I was not in love with the Bowl.
MS: What didn’t you like about it?
GD: Well, you get spoiled by the acoustics of concert halls. Then you go to the Bowl and you play with microphones. But when you hear how the new sound system has improved, it’s really beautiful. And of course the orchestra knows the place so very well and how to approach music in it. My feeling about the Bowl has completely changed.
MS: Then again, nothing can compare with Disney Hall. This building is your second home in Los Angeles. Speak about your relationship to the hall and its architect, Frank Gehry, who has become a close friend you’ve nicknamed Pancho.
GD: Frank is a like a father. My son and now María feel that he is part of our family. And with this building, it’s true you get spoiled. Physically it’s beautiful, but it is much more than that. It has become part of the soul of the orchestra and of the city. When you talk about the main halls around the world, it’s always at the top of the list. But at the same time, it’s just the beginning. The YOLA Center Frank is designing in Inglewood will be the big hall’s little son or little daughter. It will bring an artistic and cultural identity to help the community get better and better. This is the effect Frank has. Without Frank’s spirit, without Frank’s mind, without Frank’s heart, without his love for this community, such a project would be impossible.
MS: Can you describe what it is Disney Hall has given to the orchestra and to your own sense of connection with the community?
GD: You can do whatever you want in it, and Frank did that on purpose. You can stage whatever you want in this hall. It’s a challenge, maybe, but it makes you see new possibilities, it inspires you to think that nothing is impossible. Look at all the things we’ve done in this hall, like staging Mozart operas, John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary [an opera/oratorio written for Dudamel and the L.A. Phil and staged by Peter Sellars] and thousands of other things. The flexibility of this hall reflects and makes possible the flexibility of the orchestra and the flexibility of the institution. I think we are blessed.
MS: Gehry was even going to design a concert hall and music school that was to be named after you for El Sistema in your hometown of Barquisimeto before the Venezuelan political and economic crisis made that impossible.
GD: No, he still is! We never stop dreaming. We have been talking a lot about how to do it in a very different way. Maybe we will have a surprise for you in the future.
MS: You never give up?
GD: Never! The situation in Venezuela is horrible. It’s almost impossible. But every day I am on the telephone. I coach over Skype. The power of El Sistema is that we take the moment of crisis as a challenge. Youth orchestras still give concerts, and I see in this the soul of my country. We cannot avoid the dynamic of life, but at the moment of crisis we take on great challenges so that when the crisis ends, El Sistema will be strong. And then stronger and stronger. This is the power of El Sistema.
MS: In the meantime, you will have the Gehry YOLA Center as part of your Los Angeles legacy.