Venezuela is known for Hugo Chavez, oil exports and its record number of Miss World pageant winners. But if classical music fans had their way, it would also be synonymous with Gustavo Dudamel, its 27-year old star conductor, and El Sistema, the state-sponsored music education system that gave him his start.
Dudamel, with his rousing energy and trademark locks of curly brown hair, burst onto the international classical music scene in 2004 when, at age 23, he won the prestigious Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany.
The New York Times has hailed him “one of the hottest—and youngest—conducting properties around” and Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” While Dudamel’s ascension to the select club of leading international conductors has been dazzling, he remains surprisingly level-headed.
“My life is so normal. Of course I have to study a lot,” says Dudamel, referring to the musical scores he carries with him everywhere he goes. “And I travel every week to different places to give concerts, but I do the same things as before. I love to be with my friends, to go to the movies… I love wine, I looove to eat and to dance,” says Dudamel in a phone interview from Gothenburg, Sweden, where he is Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
Dudamel is also Music Director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela and was appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—a post that will begin in 2009 and that caused heartbreaks at other symphony orchestras across the U.S. who had hoped to snatch him up first. Though it may seem impossible that one man could manage all these positions simultaneously, he does—and still finds time to appear as a guest conductor with orchestras around the world.
Born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Dudamel is now a global nomad whose touring schedule takes him to the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Dudamel lives on airplanes, in fact. He is preparing a tour with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra that will take him to the main halls in Germany, Austria and Spain; he will soon spend two weeks with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and he will wrap up the year with an Asian tour with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra that will include concerts in Japan, Korea and China.
Last month, he traveled to Oviedo, Spain with members of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, where they received the prestigious Principe de Asturias Prize and performed at the awards ceremony.
After a series of concerts in Israel in early November, Dudamel brought the Israel Philharmonic to the U.S., with performances in California, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia. One of the tour’s highlights was a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Dudamel is proud to be a product of Venezuela’s music education and youth orchestra system, the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela, better known as “El Sistema.”
El Sistema is a government-sponsored artistic project with a social mission: to save lives through music. Founded in a garage in 1975 by economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema now boasts 125 youth orchestras across the country containing more than 250,000 kids, most of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds. In addition, it encompasses 30 professional orchestras and 15,000 teachers. The best musicians from El Sistema are channeled into Dudamel’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is based in Caracas.
“In Venezuela, music is a way to save kids from lives of drugs and crime,” Dudamel explains. “Music has also saved me. I was one of these kids who had a lot of free time, and in America Latina it is difficult to stay away from the terrible things in society.” Although Dudamel comes from a supportive middle-class family, he credits El Sistema with giving him the opportunity to find his passion.
Dudamel’s father was a trombone player in a salsa band, but since Dudamel’s arms were too short for the trombone, he started his musical education at the local “nucleo”—the term for El Sistema’s neighborhood clusters—and took up the violin before moving on to conducting at the age of 15.
Every afternoon, youngsters across Venezuela take music classes and rehearse with their ensembles. El Sistema provides tuition, music materials and organizes workshops in exchange for students’ commitment to the program. In the streets of Venezuela’s poorest neighborhoods, it has created opportunities for thousands of children, proving that music is more than a simple ornament to general education, as it is often perceived in the U.S. and Europe.
“I always say poor in money but rich in the soul. People want to have culture, they want to learn. Music is not only for those who can afford tickets: music—especially classical music—is for everybody.”
Dudamel hopes to bring the El Sistema model to countries around the world, including the United States. In Los Angeles, where he will soon take up his new post, a “Youth Orchestra L.A.” program has already been launched. (In part inspired by El Sistema.) “L.A., where there are a lot of Latinos and a large poor community, has many of the same conditions as Venezuela,” says Dudamel.
Classical music leaders around the world have taken note. Matias Tarnopolsky, artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, went to Caracas a few years ago to learn firsthand about El Sistema. He describes hearing the orchestra and watching the young musicians perform as “a shot in the arm.” “It was one of the most inspiring musical experiences I have encountered,” says Tarnopolsky. “It’s a model of what music education should be, encouraging every child to take up an instrument, practice and play together in ensembles.”
Dudamel’s youth and energy have galvanized audiences around the world. What is most striking, though, is his ability to connect not only with his public—rousing even the most jaded concert-goers—but with the orchestras he conducts. When Dudamel hears that the Finnish conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has said of him that “he seduces the orchestra into playing for him,” he laughs.
“The time of conductors as dictators is gone. To have a good relationship with an orchestra, it is important for a conductor to be open,” he says.
Dudamel gives numerous interviews and his answers are polished, but when I ask him what he might have been in another life if not a musician, he’s caught off guard. “I don’t know… a philosopher, a lawyer… maybe a politician?” The thought has clearly never crossed his mind. He is a conductor and it could not have been any other way.
Nicole E. Foster is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, focusing on International Media and Communications and the Middle East. She has lived in France, England, Spain and Germany, and worked managing music education projects in the Middle East. She received her BSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics. This is her second article for JANERA.com.