No one makes history with Schubert's early symphonies. Schubert didn't. But Gustavo Dudamel did Friday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
He walked on stage with uncharacteristic brusqueness — no smiles. The Venezuelan music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic looked at the orchestra for a moment and then turned to the audience. He mentioned the killing, two days earlier in an antigovernment protest, of a 17-year-old violist in Venezuela's El Sistema music education program. Dudamel said the violence in Venezuela is unacceptable, and he dedicated the concert to the slain student and to all the victims of violence.
"We play for all our children," he concluded, "to build a better future for them with peace and love."
The audience rose to give him a standing ovation. A group in the orchestra benches behind the stage unfurled a large Venezuelan flag, and shouts of "viva Venezuela" came from the balcony.
Dudamel then proceeded to conduct Schubert's inconsequential first symphony — written when the composer was a 16-year-old student taking his cues (and stealing themes) from Beethoven — as though every measure mattered momentously. With ferocious attention to detail, and with plain ferocity, he revealed a teen's potential for greatness.
The message was clear: This is what slaughtering the young means. The L.A. Phil had never played the symphony before. It had no reason to, but Dudamel has just begun the orchestra's first Schubert symphony cycle, which will continue over the next two weeks. And with the First, and after intermission the Second (also a work Schubert wrote as a teenager), Dudamel made one of the strongest statements of his career.
That a nobody kid violinist from the nowhere Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto rose through El Sistema's ranks to become one of the world's most celebrated classical musicians is a well-told story. But Dudamel's rise to this occasion, at a time when he is being involuntarily drawn into Venezuela's current turmoil, is a startling new chapter.
After long being constrained by the Venezuelan government's control of El Sistema, Dudamel has begun to speak out. Much of the violence he condemns is being perpetrated by pro-government forces. But many in Venezuela are not placated, calling Dudamel's actions too little, too late. Some have gone so far as to accuse the conductor of being complicit in the violence, for not biting the autocratic hand that feeds the hundreds of thousands of El Sistema students for whom Dudamel feels responsibility.
In his brief talk to the audience Friday, Dudamel said, "The L.A. Phil is my family; El Sistema is my family." These are his allegiances.
What is even more striking is that, if you take Venezuela's crisis out of the picture, 2017 could seem like a fairy tale for Dudamel. He opened the year the youngest musician ever invited to conduct the fabled Vienna Philharmonic New Year's concerts, which he did with gusto, bringing cheer to the world. The concert was broadcast seemingly everywhere there is television and radio, and then it was quickly released on practically every audio and video format known to man and woman.
Just after turning 36 in January, he led the L.A. Phil in a dramatically intense performance of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," the lingering impression being the magical atmosphere he brought to young love.
A few days later, Dudamel and the Spanish film star María Valverde quietly got married in Las Vegas, something the couple did not announce. (Sorry, Gustavo, but sooner or later, we'd find out.) Next, Dudamel's and El Sistema's Símon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra gave four sold-out and critically praised cycles of Beethoven's nine symphonies in Europe, including in Beethoven's Vienna, a top test for any conductor.
Dudamel returned to L.A. to the news that the New York press had heaped unprecedented praise on the L.A. Phil, hailing it as America's most important orchestra. There was also news that the orchestra's celebrated president and chief executive, Deborah Borda, who had brought Dudamel to L.A. and mentored and empowered him, was decamping to run the New York Philharmonic.
But in an interview in Dudamel's office at Disney Hall a week ago, he unsentimentally presented this as a challenge he welcomed.
"I love Deborah," he said. "We changed our lives together. I learned a lot from her, but this transition is not dramatic. It is a natural transition. I will always thank her for bringing me here and fighting for me. But I am an optimist who always sees things as a beginning, and this is a new beginning."
In fact, all the talk about the L.A. Phil having reached its pinnacle seems to slightly exasperate Dudamel, who presents a philosophy that there is always more to do and ways to do it better.
"We are not desperate," he contends. "We are not worried, but we have expectations, and that is different. New times bring new goals. We cannot go with a copy of Deborah. We will keep the same energy but with new eyes.
"I'm a leader of this institution, but I don't want a puppet who will do whatever I say. No! I love to work with people of vision."
Dudamel is, in fact, making the same call for the L.A. Phil as he is for Venezuela, namely for everyone to sit down, listen to one another and work things out.
"I love to listen," he says. "I'm never a radical in the things that I say. I love to listen to proposals and then we go create something important.
"My goal when I came here was not to be a boring orchestra that just plays regular concerts."
Instead Dudamel describes his vision for the L.A. Phil as paying attention to past — as in the symphony cycles, like the Schubert, following the development of a composer he so loves doing — "but also take big risks."
He would not confirm the rumor that the orchestra's ambitious plan for its centennial in 2019 includes the commissioning of 50 works from the world's most notable composers as well as emerging composers. But he will say that when the subject of tradition comes up, "the L.A. Phil is about the tradition of the future."
That includes playing an essential role in society, whether creating the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) program modeled on El Sistema, or something like the upcoming CDMX Festival, celebrating the music of Mexico City, in October.
"People build borders," Dudamel says. "We are building bridges. That is why those who say we are not talking about politics are not listening? Yes, we are talking about the things that we do through the music. Mexico's future and L.A.'s future are not disconnected."
Nor were Schubert and Venezuela's future on Friday. For each program, Dudamel has broken up two symphonies with a Mahler orchestral song cycle, and those, too, promise to become part of the narrative.
Between the first and second symphonies came Mahler's early "Songs of a Wayfarer," songs of a young wanderer's stinging lost love, which are companion to his first symphony. The commandingly Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung added portentous poignancy on the line, "All singing must now be done." Here Dudamel lingered on every glowing Mahlerian color, seeming reluctant to let anything go. He followed that by conducting Schubert's Second with the fraught passion of trying to bring the dead back to life.
Next Dudamel speaks out with Schubert's "Tragic" Symphony and Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," which translates as "Songs on the Death of Children."