Miracle maestro: Gustavo Dudamel brings music from Venezuela's slums to the Proms

Jessica Duchen
Friday 05 August 2011 00:00 BST

Cometh the hour, cometh "The Dude". A few years ago, it felt as if classical music's energy was flagging. It needed a superhero: a young, hip, charismatic figurehead who could take centre stage and inspire a new generation to embrace an art that should be accessible to all but is not always perceived that way. Then, out of the impoverished urban sprawls of Venezuela, emerging from a legendary music education scheme known as El Sistema, along bounced Gustavo Dudamel.

Aged 30, Dudamel – inevitably nicknamed "The Dude" – is probably the hottest property on the conductor's podium today. His tousle-haired figure and his big, warm grin are unmistakeable to music-lovers around the globe. He has been snapped up as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and he has held the equivalent post at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden for four years. But there is still no orchestra with which he is more familiar than the Simó* Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. This was his home – his "family", as he says – from the start, and it was with this orchestra that he truly stole the hearts of his audience.

In 2007, Dudamel and the SBSO (then called the Simó* Bolívar Youth Orchestra) created extraordinary scenes at the Proms. This enormous ensemble of young players, performing the "Symphonic Dances" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, donned their national colours, spun their double basses, twirled their trumpets and appeared to be having as much fun as the promenaders, as if high on the thrill of their own music-making. Their concerts at the Southbank Centre have been equally sensational – their 2009 residency had critics in ecstasies over their "jaw-dropping dynamism". They will be back there next year, for two concerts in the Shell Classic International series. Tonight, though, they are returning to the Proms, to perform Mahler's Symphony No 2, the "Resurrection".

There is no mistaking the enthusiasm with which Dudamel remembers his orchestra's last visit to the Proms. "It's a very special experience to perform there," he says, "and all the more because I think that the Prom we did in 2007 was something very important for us."

He is speaking about himself and the orchestra as a unit. "It was like an explosion of many things and many opportunities – and the closeness and the interaction you have with the audience is so beautiful. I think the atmosphere of a Prom concert can change your life, in the best way. It's so deep, the feeling you have there. The audience is so close, and there are so many of them, that you feel they are almost embracing you."

You can see why the music world is in love with "Gustavo the Great": when he turns on the charm, resistance is futile.

Dudamel was born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, the fourth-largest city in Venezuela. He took up the violin when he was 10. He is the son of two musicians – his father was a trombonist and his mother a singing teacher – and he recalls that as a child he wanted to play the trombone like his father, but his arms were too short. The musical background must have helped, but it was his early involvement with El Sistema that propelled him on to his remarkable path.

The founder of El Sistema was the Venezuelan economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, a quietly dedicated individual who surely deserves a Nobel Prize for his work in bringing to hundreds of thousands of children a new outlook on life, through music. The scheme has been funded entirely by the country's government since 1977. Its remarkable effects are still spreading around the world.

Surrounded by poverty and violence, the children who enter El Sistema are, essentially, removed from drug and crime-ridden streets and taught music as an alternative way of life, helping to give them purpose, discipline, concentration, inspiration, self-respect and the ability to work with others.

Abreu set the scheme in motion in 1975, with 11 kids rehearsing in an underground car park. Today, El Sistema has a network of 125 youth orchestras, and music schools that involve about a quarter of a million children. Their stories, though often told, are moving and often shocking. In Paul Smaczny's 2009 documentary about the project, El Sistema, a young girl who looks no more than 11 explains that she didn't make it to a rehearsal because she had been shot in the leg. She didn't mind the pain so much, she says. What she minded was missing her orchestra.

As Dudamel's career has progressed, many have noted the dichotomy between the celebratory fun in national colours of the SBSO on tour and the controversial rule of Hugo Chavez at home. Cultural achievements are used by regimes in many countries to mask reputations for repression, corruption and human rights abuse. Is today's Venezuela really a place to celebrate? Are not the flags and the cheers just skin deep?

With the answers to these questions widely considered to be "no" and "yes", it is worth pointing out that El Sistema pre-dated the Chavez regime and that Dudamel – though he has been photographed shaking hands with the president – takes pains to associate himself with his country rather than its current government. And it has to be said, too, uncomfortable though it may be, that while music education is being slashed in the US and UK, El Sistema remains a beacon of relative enlightenment.

Dudamel has credited music for "saving" him. Would he have been a conductor without El Sistema? "That's a good question," he laughs, "because I never thought to become a conductor at all. It was just my favourite game!" As a child he put on records and indulged in air conducting. "I wanted to play my violin and have my musical expression through the instrument. But then I was really young when I had my first opportunity to conduct."

Indeed, Dudamel was only 12 when he stood on a podium for the first time. At one of the youth orchestras he played in, the conductor had fallen ill. Gustavo took a chance. "It was really like, 'Wow, this is something that I like!'"

In 1995, he took conducting lessons with Roberto Saglimbeni; he then went to Abreu for further studies. It was Abreu who suggested he should be given a post at the Simó* Bolívar Youth Orchestra. Dudamel became its music director in 1999, at the age of 18. Winning a number of competitions, including the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize in 2004, sealed his future.

There has to be a downside to all this, and one beyond politics. Runaway success so young is never safe. Dudamel found himself in immense demand. But after his appointments in Gothenburg and more recently Los Angeles, questions were asked: Was he really so good? Could he live up to the hype? The music world might have "Dudamania", but when the honeymoon was over, would it last? A British critic sounded a warning note in Lucerne a few years ago, declaring himself "not exactly overwhelmed". And observing Dudamel's tours with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, some American critics were even more uncertain. Was Dudamel doing too much, too fast, too young, and was he not doing it all thoroughly enough?

One called his account of the Tchaikovsky "Pathétique" Symphony "rough and unfocused". In May 2010 another, Peter Dobrin of The Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote: "The most cynical listener figures that the Los Angeles Philharmonic has recalculated aspects of the [conductor's] job once considered ancillary (community relations, education, fund-raising) as primary now, and a winsome persona is more important than revelatory interpretations... I'd rather think that the Los Angeles board, administration and players really believe they have a great musical thinker on their hands. But that's not who Dudamel is..."

It is undeniable that to be the music director of a big American orchestra today requires the ability and the willingness to schmooze – it is the harsh reality of the times. More generally, though, great thinkers and great conductors are not necessarily one and the same. The ability to unite and inspire an orchestra often comes from something altogether more physical and emotional, even sensual. When you watch Dudamel in action, you realise the beat, and the whole direction, is not something he gives with his baton. Instead, it goes through his entire body like a bolt of fire. He may not be first and foremost an intellectual, but that doesn't mean he's not a tremendous performer.

And that is possibly the point of what he is doing: love him or loathe him, one of his achievements has been to prove that classical music is not an elite ivory tower that can or should be reserved for "great musical thinkers". There are a number of the latter, of course, and they are wonderful, too. But there is room for different approaches, and Dudamel's fans do not love him for analysing Schoenberg. They are set alight by his remarkable energy. And he must have done something right: the LA Philharmonic has extended his contract through its centenary season, 2018-19.

What does the man himself think about this? Is revitalising the fanbase of classical music part of his aim? "I think this energy is part of the love you have to have for what you do," he says. "But remember, a conductor without an orchestra is nothing! I think it's a very important collaboration between the conductor and the orchestra – especially when the conductor is one more member of the orchestra in the way that you are leading, but also respecting, feeling and building the same way for all the players to understand the music. The energy is part of the love. It's not something I feel I have to do for people to like me. I think it's part of something natural."

Today, Dudamel lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, Eloisa Maturén, a journalist and trained ballet dancer, and their small son. New peaks beckoned last year, when he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival in a concert that was streamed live on the internet and screened in 50 cinemas. His Venezuelan orchestra has progressed, too, having changed its name in a statement that suggests it has grown up with its conductor. The SBSO is recording, with Dudamel, for Deutsche Grammophon and it has made CDs of Beethoven's Symphonies Nos 5 and 7 as well as Mahler's No 5. A special smash-hit was its disc of Latin American music, Fiesta. But now Dudamel has so many commitments elsewhere, what does the future hold for his home team?

"Of course the Simó* Bolívar Orchestra is the family where I grew up," says Dudamel. "I started to conduct them when I was around 16, they gave me a position when I was 18 and before that I was playing violin with them. So it's a very special connection. I don't see my life in the future without this orchestra: it's like a perfect union. Combining this with Los Angeles and with Gothenburg is great, because you have the chance to have two other families.

"But for me the Simó* Bolívar Orchestra was the place where I learned how to work, not only for myself but together with everybody; this is a beautiful thing, to make our orchestra an example to learn from in our in community. They are great – they put all their givingness, their energy and their time into making good music. I think we have a great future together."

Dudamel is still very much an emblem for El Sistema. It can take a star figure to draw attention to educational work that is conducted a long way from the jet-set life. El Sistema's work – and that of the numerous projects around the world that have been inspired by it – operates at grass-roots level, involving demanding slog in often threadbare, grimy or dangerous conditions. The changing of lives does not happen by magic. But it does happen and, says Dudamel, there is plenty that the world can learn from El Sistema. The message is to take home its proven example of music and social metamorphosis and build on that.

For Dudamel, it is about transformation at every level, from slum to concert hall, from classroom to podium, and it begins with creating a shift in our attitude towards classical music and the way it is performed.

"I think the most important thing is to make the music accessible," he says. "Often we think that classical music is for those people who have the opportunity to listen to it – and of course, if there's this concept that classical music is elitist, people will think, 'Oh, it would be really boring to go!' The first step is starting from the orchestra. When people feel that something really special is happening on the stage, things change. And it's not that you have to jump or scream, or do something different. You play the same music, but feeling the recognition that it's a work of art. And that is what El Sistema is doing. We made a change inside the orchestra and then the people. Now that interaction between the orchestra and the audience is amazing.

"El Sistema became a symbol of the country and people feel proud of that," he says. "But it's not only about going to a concert; it's also about people understanding what is happening. I think we have to make everyone understand that it's important to have a future for the people. It's important to give the best level of art, the best level of culture and the best level of music to all the people, not only to one part of the community. This is the message of El Sistema.

"It is an example in many ways – and everybody has these possibilities. Nobody can say, 'Oh, this works only for Venezuela because of the specific social situation.' It's about youth, it's about the future, it's about the children. In different ways, every country has its own needs; and you can put Sistema into a specific condition and it will work. We have beautiful examples in other countries. We are starting in Los Angeles: we already have more than 1,500 musicians doing this in a special community."

Sistema is in the UK, too. "In Raploch, it's working – and we are going to Scotland in two years to work with them there," says Dudamel. Sure enough, earlier this year Big Noise Sistema Scotland, in Raploch, revealed some astonishing statistics. Their research showed that 100 per cent of parents with children involved in the project felt their child had become more confident; 93 per cent thought their child was happier and 79 per cent reported them more willing to concentrate. "Sistema is working in Sweden, South Korea, and many countries in South America," adds Dudamel. "So I think this works everywhere."

In this light, the symphony to which Dudamel, the SBSO and the National Youth Chorus devote their Prom tonight, Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, is symbolic too – both of the orchestra's achievements and of its continuing mission. "For us it was a dream to play this piece," Dudamel says. "We were listening to it a lot, but it was not possible technically for us, years ago, to play it. Now, to gain a piece with such power is something that has a very special place in our hearts. And it's meaningful because it's a message of resurrection, and resurrection is happening every day. Not in the literal sense, though. It's the resurrection of hope."

The Prom sold out months ago. But to resurrect your hopes of hearing it, you can queue early for promenade places, listen on BBC Radio 3 or tune in for tomorrow's TV broadcast on BBC2 (and 18 August on BBC4). A Prom, as Dudamel says, can change your life in the best way.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra perform Mahler's Symphony No 2 at the BBC Proms tonight. A 3CD set on Deutsche Grammophon of Sibelius, Nielsen and Bruckner Symphonies with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra is released on 22 August

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