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¡Bienvienido Gustavo!

August 13, 2009

What the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new maestro means for Tinsel Town

When the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel made his U.S. debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September 2005, the habitually fidgety Hollywood Bowl audience reacted in a surprising way. “With the opening bars of Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de los Mayas, the party sitting next to me put aside its just-opened giant bag of Cheetos and forgot about it until intermission,” reported the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed. “The crowd clapped and whooped. That's not just rare but a downright wonder at the Bowl on the Los Angeles Philharmonic's classical Tuesday and Thursday programmes.”

Four years later and about to begin his tenure as the L.A. Philharmonic’s music director, Dudamel continues to engender whoops. When the 28-year-old conductor made his New York Philharmonic debut in 2007, the audience gave him a five minute-long standing ovation. “We have certain baseball players whom we call naturals, who enter the game and make everything look effortless,” says composer John Adams. “Gustavo possesses this quality.” Meanwhile, critics have noted Dudamel’s dynamic approach to performing both canonical staples and contemporary works. “I’ve heard Dudamel conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra,” says New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson. “These ensembles are all quite different, yet in each case the concerts were explosive, visceral and communicated an ecstatic energy.”

Dudamel is undeniably a rock-star within classical music circles. Yet in a city as celebrity-saturated as is L.A., what impact can a symphony orchestra conductor hope to achieve beyond the rarified enclaves of the concert hall? Dudamel made Time Magazine’s 2009 “100 List” and has been the subject of a 60 Minutes television documentary. A well-known Hollywood hotdog stand, Pink’s, even named one of its offerings after the maestro. But according to Angeleno Magazine deputy editor and L.A. native Jade Chang, most locals still think that the Walt Disney Concert Hall (the Philharmonic’s iconic, Frank Gehry-designed homebase) exists primarily to “show the latest Pixar movie” – hardly a promising start for inspiring “Dudamania.”

Yet if anyone is capable of opening the U.S.’s mass media-controlled citizenry up to the social, educational and artistic possibilities of orchestral music today, it’s probably “The Dude.” Dudamel, for his part, is optimistic about moving to California. As he explained via email: “In a city like L.A., where they have the ‘anything is possible’ attitude, I truly believe the reach of the L.A. Phil will only grow the more time I spend there and get to the know the depth of the artistic community.”

L.A. was primed for Dudamel’s arrival long before he first appeared at the Hollywood Bowl. During Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 17-year tenure, the L.A. Philharmonic became one of the most progressive orchestras around. The Finnish composer-conductor introduced 54 commissioned works and another 120 world or American premieres. The niche “Green Umbrella” new music series grew into a popular mainstream event. Pieces by DJs and film composers regularly appeared alongside canonical works. The Philharmonic increased its outreach offering to include a high school composers programme, mentorships with local youth orchestras, public school residencies and free community concerts – important developments in a region where, according to a 2007 survey by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, nearly 40% of residents are unable to meet their basic needs and more than 20% of children live in extreme poverty.

As culturally-diverse and youth-oriented as it is sociologically- and fiscally-challenged, L.A. is in many ways an ideal match for Dudamel. The fact that the maestro kicked-off his tenure by hiring Adams as the orchestra’s creative chair demonstrates his commitment to Salonen’s new music legacy. Contemporary works featured in the upcoming season include Unsuk Chin’s Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra, Salonen’s LA Variations and the world premiere of Adams’ City Noir. Meanwhile, the Esa-Pekka Salonen Commissions Fund, a resource currently worth more than $1.5 million, will redouble the Philharmonic’s focus on new music going forwards.

Beyond emphasizing modern repertoire, Dudamel’s greatest focus will be on outreach. A product of Venezuela’s “El Sistema” system, a nationwide programme which provides free music training to children, Dudamel seems committed to making music education part of everyday life for L.A.’s youth and developing the careers of talented newcomers.

To that end, the Philharmonic established a conducting fellowship programme and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which provides free instruments and instruction to schoolchildren, many of them living below the poverty line in L.A.’s predominantly Latino neighbourhoods. To enroll, students are required to take care of their instruments, practice for at least 20 minutes a day and attend lessons and rehearsals several times a week. “With Gustavo’s arrival we have flipped the relationship between professional and youth orchestras on its head,” says the Philharmonic’s education director, Gretchen Nielsen. “Youth orchestras are usually comprised of the crème de la crème. But here we’re saying anyone who’s interested can play an instrument and we’ll provide opportunities for creativity and development. Whether the kids decide to become professional musicians or not is beside the point.” YOLA is already impacting youngsters’ lives. “Now that we have our kids in the Philharmonic, they are developing a greater sense of responsibility and discipline,” says Gregorio Morales, whose three children play in the EXPO orchestra.

Despite these positive signs, Dudamel faces significant hurdles in reaching out to L.A.’s underserved youth. With music education almost non-existent in many California schools (according to a study by the Music for All Foundation, participation in general music courses declined statewide by nearly 90% between 1999 and 2004) there is a need for organizations like the L.A. Philharmonic to provide pedagogical support. Scaling up to meet demand is an issue; there is now a waiting list to the join YOLA.

Notwithstanding cheerleaderly assertions like, “I am quite certain that Dudamel will be welcomed by our city’s vibrant Latino community as an inspirational role model,” by Los Angeles Opera general director Placido Domingo, awareness of the orchestra and its education programmes remains questionable. Sonia Marie de León de Vega, the music director of the L.A.-based, Latino community-oriented Santa Cecilia Orchestra, has a different perspective: “I am not aware of any special initiatives the LA Phil is undertaking to reach the Latino community.” YOLA parent Bertha Banuelos concurs: “I do not think that most Latinos know who Dudamel is or what the L.A. Philharmonic is. There should be more promotion in inner-city schools and through fieldtrips.”

With Dudamel’s Venezuelan heritage and close to 50% of the L.A. population being Hispanic or Latino, communication with the Central and South American community has nevertheless become core to the Philharmonic’s outreach effort. Through the Philharmonic’s new “Americas and Americans” festival, Dudamel is programming works by Latino composers such as Carlos Chávez and importing artistic ensembles like the Schola Cantorum of Venezuela. Two of the orchestra’s conducting fellows, Diego Mathuez and Christian Vasquez, are products of El Sistema. The Philharmonic is also partnering with L.A. supervisor Gloria Molina on promoting its free “¡Bienvienido Gustavo!” musical celebration on October 3 to the Latino community and is working with a specialist communications agency to connect with ethnic media outlets.

If there’s one sector of L.A. society whose attention the Philharmonic is not actively soliciting, it’s Hollywood. The Philharmonic has close links with the local film industry, from former music director André Previn’s film score writing endeavours to its long collaboration with composer John Williams. Despite these ties, Philharmonic President Deborah Borda is keen to distance Dudamel from Tinseltown. “Because Gustavo has so much charisma, it’s tempting to think of him as a Hollywood animal,” Borda says. “It’s fair to say that Gustavo is wary of Hollywood. He’s not looking to have his picture on the front of People Magazine.”

As protective as Borda is of her new maestro, Dudamel doesn’t seem averse to bringing mass entertainment to Disney hall when doing so makes artistic sense. On a trip to L.A. with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra a while back, Dudamel asked Williams, whom he had never met before, to conduct his famous Star Wars film score with the ensemble. “Rehearsal was due to begin at 10 am. But, oddly, Gustavo didn’t seem to want me to start on time,” recalls the composer. “Then, when we went on stage to meet the orchestra for the first time, he gave a signal and the entire brass section stood up and played one of the pieces I composed for the Olympics from memory in an arrangement made specially for me. It was so moving. I couldn’t believe it. Then the rehearsal started.”


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