Dudamel prepares to unite the Americas

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During the sultry days and nights of his Venezuelan youth, Gustavo Dudamel constantly heard the masters’ music blasting from radios or pouring out of Caracas nightclubs and concert halls: the jazz-inflected salsa of Eddie Palmieri, the merengue-bachata fusions of Juan Luis Guerra and, of course, the Afro-Cuban and Latin pop philosophizing of Rubén Blades.

Although the burgeoning classical conductor was consumed with absorbing Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mahler, he also was internalizing the tropical rhythms that were his hemispheric birthright.

“It forms part of my soul, of my life,” Dudamel said in Spanish while lunching on takeout sushi last week at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where he is in his third year as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


“As you know, my father played salsa with his own band,” Dudamel continued, “and the music always was around me. It forms part of our spirit because they are all great musicians.”

This week, the 31-year-old conductor will repay, and lead audiences to reconsider, several of those Latin musical mentors when he performs with them in the “Americas & Americans,” his first festival at the Hollywood Bowl.

It’s a programming lineup with more overlapping characters and thematic coincidences than a Dickens novel. And it’s all designed to illustrate one of Dudamel’s core convictions: that the Americas, from Punta Arenas, Chile, to the Canadian Arctic Circle are one land mass, one people, one art.


“All the music that’s being presented is a reunion, a great reunion that continues to exist,” Dudamel said.

Since his arrival at the Phil in the fall of 2009, Dudamel has made an ongoing project of ripping down musical barriers between Latin America and the United States, disassembling what he regards as antiquated and classist notions of elite culture versus popular culture. Whether conducting Venezuela’sOrquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar at last fall’s Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas or uniting the Phil and the young musicians of Simón Bolívar to perform Mahler’s symphonic cycle in L.A. and Caracas last spring, Dudamel has pushed that agenda with every technological and cultural means at his disposal.

His inaugural “Americas & Americans” festival took place in the spring of 2010 at Disney Hall. This year’s edition opens Tuesday evening with Dudamel and the L.A. Phil accompanying Guerra, the Dominican Republican idol whose pan-Caribbean artistic approach helped bring styles such as bachata, a bittersweet form of rustic dance music, into the Latin pop mainstream.


“To work with Juan Luis is a dream,” Dudamel said. “When I was a kid everyone was listening to Juan Luis Guerra.”

Speaking by phone from his homeland, Guerra said this would be the first time his songs had been performed by a symphony orchestra. His own musical evolution since youth has encompassed countless English-language artists, such as the Beatles, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and composers such as George Gershwin and Charles Ives, Guerra said, so the festival for him was a natural fit.

Describing Dudamel’s’ embrace of a range of musical genres as “energetic” and “enthusiastic,” Guerra said that this eclecticism has been a boon for musicians on two continents.

“When I hear not only the Simón Bolívar but also the [L.A.] Phil, the musicians transmit a level of energy that calls attention to the direction of the music. There’s a joy in the interpretation,” Guerra said.

The Bowl’s “Americas” showcase continues Wednesday with a salsa double-bill, pairing Puerto Rican pianist Palmieri and his orchestra with Blades, the Panamanian singer-actor-politico whose witty musical character sketches and politically charged lyrics have earned him the reputation of a kind of polyrhythmic Kurt Weill.

Then on Thursday, Dudamel and the Phil will turn north of the Straits of Florida to perform a classical program capped by Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, which the U.S. composer wrote in the mystical Mexican village of Tepoztlán. The concert also will include Piano Concerto No. 1 by the avant-garde folklorist Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, a Copland protégé; and Toccata No. 1 by the Venezuelan Juan Carlos Núñez. Yet another Venezuelan, the young pianist Sergio Tiempo, will be the program’s featured soloist.


That will set the stage for two performances, Friday and Saturday, by Colombian rock superstar Juanes, accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins. Juanes, a 17-time Latin Grammy Award-winner who reenergized his career this year by releasing the bestselling live acoustic album “Juanes: MTV Unplugged” (co-produced by Guerra), also will be joined at the Bowl by members of the Phil-sponsored Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA).

YOLA, which caters to economically disadvantaged youth, was modeled after Venezuela’s national music education program El Sistema, in which Dudamel learned to conduct.

In an interview last week in Los Angeles, Juanes, who for years has been active in humanitarian and philanthropic causes, said he viewed the YOLA collaboration as an opportunity to “give dignity and respect to the music and to the young musicians.”

“For me it’s a privilege to play with them,” he said.

Anyone who by that point hasn’t danced and screamed themselves into exhaustion may choose to wrap up the weekend with Sunday’s wide-ranging concert matching Dudamel and his friend Plácido Domingo, the Spanish-born, Mexican-bred superstar tenor who is general director of Los Angeles Opera. Dudamel said the program will include everything from operetta and opera (Rossini, Verdi, Wagner) to Leonard Bernstein, Broadway and mariachi.

All the artists taking part in this year’s festival are “searchers,” who throughout their careers have continued to seek out new challenges in multiple genres and multiple idioms, Dudamel said. He hopes that festival audiences feel inspired to do the same.

“It’s going to bring a person who knows Juan Luis to classical music. And at the same time the classical audience that goes to hear Copland, for example, is going to hear Juan Luis Guerra. It’s a little bit like uniting all the different strands of music.


“Maybe for a purist this is an unacceptable thing,” he said. “But the times are changing.”