Curly Dudamel Rouses Classical Music Scene, Adds Fun: Interview

Shoulders rotating, fingers snapping, feet stamping. Gustavo Dudamel has me doing something I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams.

Along with more than a thousand other people, I’m dancing the Turkey Trot with the Vienna Philharmonic in Lucerne’s prestigious KKL concert hall. This one is going in my resume.

Granted, it’s a children’s concert. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is new territory for the Vienna Philharmonic too, especially when the tousle-headed Venezuelan bounces from the podium, brass whistle in hand, and cavorts with the ensemble in a rousing samba.

Afterwards, in his dressing room, Dudamel gives an ebullient demonstration of the two-tone samba whistle. “So I learned to play this new instrument too!” he says.

The whistle comes out again during the evening concert, broadcast live around the globe, as Dudamel leads the Vienna Philharmonic through Leonard Bernstein’s “Divertimento for Orchestra” and Julian Orbon’s “Tres Versiones Sinfonicas.”

It takes chutzpah to bring utterly new repertoire to one of the world’s most traditional orchestras. Before the concert, Dudamel shows traces of anxiety, poring over the scores’ complex changes of meter and tangled structures. He flicks the dense pages, granting each an intense glance, like a human camera.

“Now it’s all in here,” he sighs at last in satisfaction, tapping a finger against the floppy curls. A photographic memory seems to be another Dudamel attribute, along with boundless energy, ferocious focus and an irrepressible sense of fun. The concert is a triumph, and the usually sedate Lucerne audience leaps to its feet and cheers.

Bluegrass Dude

There’s a pause in our conversation as the 29-year-old Venezuelan and the 168-year-old orchestra jet to Vienna and on to the U.S. We pick up the thread by telephone. Dudamel is in Lexington, Kentucky, conducting his ensemble as the unlikely highlight of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, billed to the bluegrass masses as “Get Ready for Vienna and the Dude.”

“It’s like the Olympic Games for horses,” says “the Dude.” “We are having a wonderful time, seeing this place, these beautiful horses, and making music.”

Dudamel’s rise from the poverty of urban Barquisemeto to the world’s most glamorous concert platforms was meteoric. A competition win in Bamberg six years ago, a contract with a big-name agent, a series of major orchestras enchanted by his charm and talent, and Dudamel was on his way. Today, he’s music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Orchestra, an ensemble he began conducting as a teenager.

‘What a Life!’

Does he miss anything about his former life?

“I love to travel, but sometimes it’s nice to stay in one place,” Dudamel says. “I’m happy and I enjoy it, but sometimes it’s a little crazy. Still -- what a life!”

Besides, he adds, working with the Vienna Philharmonic isn’t really new. In his childhood it was a collection of tin soldiers that he lined up in orchestral formation and conducted to the sound of a Viennese CD. Inside his head, though, it was real.

“I was dreaming, but I believed that it was true,” he says. “And now it’s happening. This is the kind of experience you have to share with the younger generation. You have to believe that things will happen, you have to work and love what you’re doing.”

Battling Routine

Sharing with the younger generation is something that matters intensely to Dudamel. Himself a product of the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV, or “El Sistema”), he’s one of the half-million children, most of them from below the poverty line, who have profited from the country’s revolutionary free music-education system.

“Whenever I listen to a children’s orchestra, I learn,” he says. “They feel everything, they enjoy everything, they have amazing energy. If I could change one thing in today’s music industry, it would be the routine. We have to avoid having people sit there and play because it’s their job. Playing music has to be necessary for the human being, like water, like air.”

Grand thoughts from a young man who now can afford to stay in the finest hotels. Dudamel’s rapid rise to fame has come with a steep rise in income. What does he spend it on?

“My material life is simple,” he says. “I come from a working family, from the world of El Sistema, where what matters is the music, the children, the future. I don’t have time to shop. I don’t live in a castle. I love to eat well, and to celebrate with family and friends.”

Dinner With Bach

What would be his dream dinner party?

“I’d love to meet Bach,” says Dudamel. “He’s the master of all our music. I’d love to meet Beethoven. Mozart. Mahler would be interesting. And Mendelssohn, because he was a genius.

“There are many living people I admire -- Abbado, Rattle, Barenboim. But the person I most admire is Maestro (Jose Antonio) Abreu (founder of El Sistema). I admire his vision and how he works to make it true.”

Doesn’t at least part of the celebrity income go on maintaining that glossy mop of designer curls?

Dudamel roars with laughter. “This is funny! Because the hair, it’s not a fashion thing. I was working so much that I didn’t have a chance to go to the hairdresser. Now I go about once a year. It’s cheap!”

Gustavo Dudamel and the Vienna Philharmonic play at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 2 and 3. Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, and 17. He conducts a new production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at La Scala, Milan, from Oct. 29 through Nov. 18.


(Shirley Apthorp is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)