Review: Gustavo Dudamel in Venezuela makes for a riveting new documentary, ‘¡Viva Maestro!’
Is Dudamel going to New York?
That’s a question on a lot of L.A. lips. With little to go on, the New York press has dubbed Gustavo Dudamel’s recent performances with the New York Philharmonic as an audition to be the orchestra’s next music director and concluded he could be the one.
You never know, but dream on. The pair of programs with Schumann’s four symphonies was planned long before the New York Philharmonic’s Jaap van Zweden announced in the fall that he would be stepping down two seasons hence. Meanwhile, Dudamel’s contract as music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic runs through the 2025-26 season, and he has put down deep roots in L.A. since his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 and becoming the orchestra’s music director four years later.
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Besides, we now have Theodore Braun’s compelling new documentary, “¡Viva Maestro!” If it is anything to go on, and I think it is, such a precipitous move — one that would be more about boosting career than advancing the artistic, cultural, social and educational opportunities the L.A. Phil can afford to provide — would be entirely out of character for Dudamel.
Character is at the heart of “¡Viva Maestro!” — Dudamel’s personal character and the character of his music making. With conductors, those aren’t always the same thing, which, of course, is what makes them interesting. In Dudamel’s case, however, what you see is what you hear, and that’s what makes him and the movie riveting.
A hard-hitting documentarian, Braun has brought shocking vividness to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (“Darfur Now”) and startling revelation to what he characterized as a pyramid scheme at Herbalife (“Betting on Zero”). In “¡Viva Maestro!” he followed Dudamel to Caracas in 2017 to watch him rehearse the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in preparation for touring Beethoven’s nine symphonies to Vienna and Hamburg.
The dichotomy between Caracas, with political strife and a murder rate that made it one of the most dangerous major cities in the world, and Dudamel’s glamorous life in Los Angeles and his conducting gigs in world capitals could hardly be greater. The 2017 trip also was the last time Dudamel was able to return to his country.
Little of the terrible poverty and widespread despair is seen as Dudamel rehearses in the modern Caracas headquarters of El Sistema, the revolutionary social activist Venezuelan program that serves close to a million underprivileged children a year with free music education. El Sistema, and its founder, José Antonio Abreu, shaped Dudamel.
While rehearsing with longtime friends in what had been a youth orchestra now turned professional, Dudamel tries to focus the tensions of a dire situation into the famous first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the so-called fate knocking on the door. For Dudamel, those four notes must represent defiance. He provokes the orchestra to evoke the spirit of fight and channel everything life-giving in Beethoven.
But there is also a sense of denial. We see Dudamel with his bodyguards (they’re not identified as such) as he tours a nucleo, one of the hundreds of Sistema schools around the country, and conducts adorable children for whom he is a superstar.
The tour proceeds. Euphoric Bolívars play as though their lives depend upon Beethoven, and jubilant audiences in Hamburg’s spectacular Elbphilharmonie give a rare-for-Germany standing ovation. The great joy of “¡Viva Maestro!” is how well Braun captures the sensation of Dudamel conducting and the sound of the orchestra.
Sadly, though, the Bolívars lives do depend on it. Once the orchestra returns home, Venezuela erupts into violence. For Dudamel, this becomes a breaking point. Although he had come under increasing international pressure to speak out against the repressive regime of Nicolás Maduro, Dudamel long resisted. The genius of Abreu had been to promote El Sistema as a $100 million government social program, and the well-being of hundreds of thousands of the nation’s poorest children depended on it.
Braun gets behind the scenes enough to show Dudamel watching the riots in Caracas on his phone in his Walt Disney Concert Hall office. Enough is enough, Dudamel says, and he finally speaks out, condemning the violence in Venezuela as unacceptable, and he calls for free elections. He is condemned by Maduro, and as life becomes unsustainable in Venezuela, members of the Bolívars begin fleeing the country. Dudamel continues to coach Sistema from his home in L.A.
Braun then follows Dudamel to Mexico City, where the conductor organizes and funds with his personal foundation a 160-member youth orchestra, and he invites several ex-Bolívars buddies to be instructors. A year later, Abreu dies. Dudamel organizes a tribute in Santiago, Chile, which again reunites many Bolívars. From afar, Dudamel is now the titular head of El Sistema, although he has been all but erased from the official government website.
Dudamel still has his detractors, and they are not likely to be satisfied by his explanations in the film that music is the only thing he has to make a difference. It is what he knows and what he does, he says. Music, not politics, is his role. The complexities of the situation in Venezuela are beyond the scope of this film, which might further make Dudamel’s few political comments seem inadequate.
The persuasion can come only from the music, and “¡Viva Dudamel!” can matter only if the music matters. Sure enough, even a documentarian who could not be manipulated by the monstrous situation in Darfur or the connivances of Herbalife can be manipulated by music. No cinema can capture the physical sensation of live performance, but this comes closer than most.
What we learn in the end about Dudamel is his exceptional ability to compartmentalize. While he stands in front of an orchestra, his entire being is focused like a laser on the music. But that focus requires an extraordinary responsibility, and the conflicted responsibilities toward the well-being of El Sistema children and the political realities of Venezuela are here seen as the greatest test of Dudamel’s life.
There is, of course, far more to Dudamel than revealed in “¡Viva Maestro!” We are given no window into his private life. The film suggests nothing about what his accomplishments have meant for L.A. or the unprecedented range of his musical collaborators.
The events in “¡Viva Maestro!” are but the catalyst for the much larger maturation of Dudamel over the past five years. He is a different conductor now and a different presence than he was then.
To watch Dudamel in rehearsal, be it with bright-eyed young musicians or well-seasoned professionals, is the closest we can get to understanding what makes him tick and what makes him great. Most of that by necessity has been left on the digital cutting room floor. A Blu-ray or DVD of the film with hours and hours of rehearsal and performance outtakes, as well as commentary track with the conductor and director, is the document we need.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; starts April 15, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Newhall; Laemmle Claremont 5; Laemmle Glendale; April 22, Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; April 29, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica
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