Saturday 16 December 2017

Gustavo Dudamel - "Even in the wilderness there has to be precision"

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel

Javier Moreno

Javier Moreno interviews one of classical music's most revered protagonists

At one point in the rehearsal of Prokoviev's Scythian Suite, op. 20, Gustavo Dudamel brings down the baton, the musicians of the Los Angeles Philarmonic Orchestra, one after another, stop playing, there is silence, and the conductor, after pondering for a few seconds, says cautiously:

   - Even in the wilderness there must be precision

He looks surprised by himself. He has interrupted the rehearsal after a few beats to ask for more ferocity.  “The score marks allegro feroce”, he insists. 

Dudamel speaks in English to the musicians, and when he pronouns feroce he does it in Italian, the word starts resounding urgently, imperatively. I remind him later of this moment when we met at his office in Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles to do the interview, after our lunch that we got from a nearby restaurant in paper boxes. This was in the last few days of November.  

- It’s not only about a perfect performance. I was telling them I wanted an imperfect perfection.  The risk, that point where you look down and you feel vertigo, where you have control of everything and at the same time you don’t. And inspire other people. Yes because, technically you can know everything but if you don’t inspire your group you won’t create something special. No one wants to hear something completely clean, perfect, but with no soul.

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel

Precision in the wilderness: Dudamel is a mature artist. In other words, he is no longer a prodigy child. The Wunderkind that the world found when he won the Gustav Mahler prize for orchestra conducting when he was 23 years old in Germany 2004. At some point of the last 12 years, hard to specify, he was no more a promising young star, he became with no doubt the most interesting, the most desirable, the most promising of the actual conductors. He has been lauded by Claudio Abbado when he was still alive, by Sir Simon Rattle, considered a superstar in the United States, where he conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, fills the Hollywood Bowl or appears in the Super Bowl halftime, he’s seen as an infinity of hope for countless of fans that trust in his capacity to join music and social advance, to enlarge radically  the audience of classical music and to enhance the lives of hundreds of thousands of children through learning to play an instrument in Venezuela (El Sistema), USA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, YOLA) and other countries. I say to him you are still the youngest conductor to take over of the legendary concert of New Year’s Eve in Vienna, with 50 millions of spectators from more than 90 countries...

 - Imagine. As you know is a concert reserved for the most devoted conductors, that’s the word, it’s not only the most popular, but the most devoted. It’s an honour. And above all this it’s a symbol of the future because an institution so traditional, a concert also very traditional with conductors who are also very traditional , suddenly it’s chosen a young man. 

 - When a promising young artist is no longer young? Dudamel answered quick like he had perfectly assimilated that process, which is difficult to gauge. 

 - It’s a process that never stops. In artistic terms, I mean… I’ve conducted since I was 11, 12 years. I am right now 35 and I feel I have the maturity to take on not only some challenges, but also I have the elements to confront them. I still have the young spirit. I haven’t lost it at all. You can’t measure it with time, only with the knowledge that you are acquiring. 

    -Is there any moment of internal change? Suddenly…

   - From an artistic point of view, yes things happen… You open a musical score, you read it, and despite the fact you have worked on it many times you learn new things. That happens through experience, the maturity to read beyond what you had seen and you had seen it plenty of times.

    - Is there any music that you shouldn’t conduct before you reach a certain age? Yourcenar said that there are novels that a writer should not attempt before he or she is 40.

    - It’s true but I wouldn’t measure it that way. Many people judge the repertory you do, about what age you can do certain things. I have always been against this. Certainly there is music that has to wait to be done.

    - For example?

    - Face to Bruckner, for example, it has complexity. I did many things when I was young that I’m doing again right now. If I hadn’t done those things I wouldn’t have the opportunity to reach this point of maturity. If I look back  I would not trade one thing that I have lived.

    - You have recorded the integral Symphonies of Beethoven.  Why Beethoven? Or better say, why now?

    - Beethoven symbolises the art embracing all the elements of the life, the society, the continent, the whole world, the human complexity, and the desire to unite this world, the people through the music and through the art. When you have the opportunity to do it from the 1st Symphony to the 9th, to see that great change, it is a unique moment. Why Beethoven now? Because it’s part of the maturity process, a new spiritual cycle of the orchestra. We don’t pretend to imitate somebody: Harnoncourt, Brüggen, Gardiner in one side, or Karajan, Bernstein, Kleiber, Furtwängler in the other. For us it is the beginning of a cycle which is deeper and more visionary, about how we are going to handle many music.

The conversation changes without even notice from Beethoven to Venezuela. Dudamel has remained silent for a long time about the political conflict that his native country has taken. He has kept a position that has brought trouble on both sides. Last September he published an article for Los Angeles Times, significantly titled: “Why I don’t talk about Venezuelan politics”.

But Dudamel was talking: the letter declared he understood the opposition, he didn’t agree all their positions though; and he was respectful to the authorities, although he didn’t agree with all their decisions. All Beethoven’s interpretations are an explosion of freedom, from Fidelio to the symphonies. You can feel that freedom in the same way in Europe, Los Angeles or in Venezuela?  Dudamel seems to find in the music a way to approach the problem. He answers without taking a breath, opening the spigot to a certain distress that has accumulated for the last few years.

 - Let’s see to Beethoven, in order to be free you need some discipline, it has to be respect, tolerance, dialogue. What does your last symphony have? Brotherhood, Embrace. How? Like an iron discipline. The adage of the 9th symphony is one of the most sublime works ever existed. A variation about a subject, contrapuntal and harmonically simple, carried to an instance of creative explosion, but inside of a discipline. Beethoven was free within his discipline. As a reference of freedom to our times it’s perfect because that’s the type of freedom we need. 

    - It must be complicated to be in charge of “El Sistema” in the middle of the political crisis that it is shaking Venezuela.

   - El Sistema is a symbol of liberty. In my country, at some point, the musician hadn’t the freedom for artistic development. When the instructor ([José Antonio Abreu, his mentor] started all this. There was only one orchestra in Caracas. What future could the young people have? They didn’t have the opportunity to grow. El Sistema transcends politicization. You can’t imagine how many concerts I have done in Caracas and in the countryside, where the politicians that assist  are the ones in television and in the newspaper fighting each other. I have seen them shaking hands in the concerts. Many of them have children playing in the orchestra. 

    - Can or should it be asked of El Sistema for something more than music?

    - In the moment that someone persuades you to take a position, you are already restraining the freedom of that person. It’s as simple as saying “ I want you to think the way I think” I don’t think there is anything wrong, dishonorable in taking a position in which people are keen to join. The moment you take a side you are part of that division and that’s the end. I do not isolate myself out of selfishness. And it feels that the more you are alone, the more that you believe. But we are there trying to create a balance in a place so polarized, where demonising the one who is not with you is the rule. 

    - Did anything change after publishing the letter in LA Times?

    - I didn’t’ do it for myself I did it for the institution, El Sistema. Of course, people want to politicize everything. But El Sistema is a symbol of the totality, the whole Venezuelan society. I just want to say I do not wish to take any position. My position is that I want my country to succeed and leave the crisis where it is. Clearly it’s very hard, it’s almost an utopian view, But if there is something representing unity is El Sistema.  

To finish, I ask him if everything would be easier without the burden he is assuming. Is it not possible to make excellent music without children’s orchestras, without El Sistema, without dedicating half of your time to Simon Bolivar, everybody predicted when he arrived to Los Angeles eight years ago, that the traps and temptations of the consuming society will make him cut loose? Dudamel stands up and searches for his mobile phone and looks in the video gallery. 

    - For me it’s not an extra job. It’s like a mission. It’s not a responsibility, I feel like I have to do it, because it keeps me alive. You can’t imagine every time I… let me show you..

In the small screen appears  a children’s orchestra filmed from the podium of the conductor, an amateur video, slightly trembling…

    - By surprise I’m here and they send to me this. It’s a children orchestra. And now you will see the concertina.

The camera moves to the left, to the lectern occupied by the concertino in an orchestra. A girl with a violin smiles to the camera. How old is she? 12, 13 years?

    - Of course. This is what gives me life. It’s not a headache, I don’t see it that way…

The interview ends but the phone is still playing the overture of Light Cavalry, the operetta of Franz von Suppe, with the happiness, the ferocity, the wildness and the absolute lack of preciseness that only can be enjoyed at 13 years old.

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