For the past three weeks Gustavo Dudamel has been sitting in a Plexiglas box conducting Verdi’s Il trovatore at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. It is, he says wryly, “one of a number of experiences this year I never expected to have”. The others include having his own radio show, At Home with Gustavo, and hosting a TV series of past concerts from the Hollywood Bowl, which aired on PBS.

The pandemic has challenged musicians to think outside the box, Plexiglas or otherwise. For Dudamel, who sees a career in music as being about communicating with audiences far and wide, it may have been almost as much an opportunity as an obstacle.

This year marks 10 years since the now 39-year-old Venezuelan completed his first season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His appointment, at the age of 27, was hailed as an inspirational move, putting one of LA’s leading cultural institutions in touch with the city’s youth and Latin American community.

“When I accepted the position,” says Dudamel, “I saw we needed to change the space we occupied in the community, especially with regard to the disadvantaged. We are institutions in our temples and we must work to get people to identify with us. It is not enough to open the doors and give a few free concerts. You have to go out and reach places where you have not been before. It is great to achieve your artistic vision, but the human and social part of making music is the biggest challenge we face.”

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the LA Philharmonic
Conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the LA Philharmonic © Ryan Hunter

The most tangible outcome will be the new Beckmen YOLA (Youth Orchestra Los Angeles) Center at Inglewood, part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Due to open next year, it is another Frank Gehry-designed building, younger cousin to the acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the LA Phil’s home, which opened in 2003. It will host up to 500 students a year from the local community and provide a gathering place for students from existing and future YOLA sites around the world.

It is not hard to see where Dudamel’s passions were forged. Growing up in Venezuela in the 1980s, he started playing the violin at an early age as part of El Sistema, the government-funded network of youth and children’s orchestras set up by José Antonio Abreu. The aim was to bring music and social change into some of Venezuela’s most deprived neighbourhoods and at its height it drew in some 100,000 children.

Since then the Sistema message has spread worldwide. Similar educational projects have been set up in the US, UK, Canada, Sweden, Japan and the Philippines, and Sistema-trained musicians have risen to the top, including three conductors now in Southern California — Dudamel, Rafael Payare at the San Diego Symphony and Carlos Izcaray, music director of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles.

Inevitably, Venezuela’s crisis of the past few years has cast a shadow over all this. Dudamel himself is no longer allowed into the country, following comments about the political situation, but he maintains contact with musicians there and continues to perform his late mentor Abreu’s music (a choral piece is planned for Dudamel’s forthcoming concerts in Munich).

The Simón Bolívar Youth Symphonic Orchestra, established through the ‘El Sistema’ music programme, playing at Teresa Carreño theatre in Caracas in 2012
The Simón Bolívar Youth Symphonic Orchestra, established through the ‘El Sistema’ music programme, playing at Teresa Carreño theatre in Caracas in 2012 © Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Imagess

“I am working on several fronts to engage with Venezuela,” he says. “First and foremost, through the ‘Encuentros’ [Encounters] my Foundation is organising, we regularly bring the top players from El Sistema together with other top players from the Latin American region. We’ve done this already in Mexico City twice, in Santiago de Chile, in Barcelona earlier this year and will do so in Madrid in January 2021 again. There are also masterclasses I conduct via Skype with the young conductors in Venezuela. And finally, of course, by playing the music and engaging with the composers of Venezuela I share our deep cultural heritage with the musical world.

“My wish is absolutely to go back to Venezuela as soon as possible. The situation there must change, but El Sistema is a positive — if not one of the most positive — things about Venezuela right now. It deserves the support of everyone who believes in the value of access to music education for all and I will continue to engage there despite the challenges.”

This year the goal of inclusiveness has taken on a new urgency. Orchestras across the world have moved quickly to give prominence to composers of colour, but a music-lover in Europe could easily go to concerts for a year and not hear a note of Latin American music.

Having Dudamel as a champion has been a big step forwards. “The first music I conducted after the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra [in Venezuela] was Latin American composers. My first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic was all Latin American composers, including Julián Orbón, a Cuban composer. In LA, this music is in the blood of the city.”

He points out that the LA Phil was already giving concerts that included gospel and rap in the days before the pandemic and the drive for diversity. “If we are to be the identity of the community, it is our responsibility to speak out, and our language is music, so we must say it through our music and programming. The challenge is different in every country, but all cultural institutions must take the risks, set themselves unifying goals, and be inspirational.” 

One of the Sound/Stage filmed concerts © Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

In the current situation, even Dudamel has a reduced schedule of live performances, at least to the end of the year. His Sound/Stage filmed concerts with the LA Phil are the main commitment, released weekly on the LA Phil website and with a characteristically diverse programme — Kamasi Washington, Thomas Adès, Duke Ellington and Chicano Batman still to come.

“Music is not only an entertainment,” he says. “Whatever we play, whether it is Beethoven or Herbie Hancock, Mozart or rap, it is a social action, an expression of the desire for social harmony which includes an element of hope for the future. This is why I love to work with young people, especially from different parts of the world, and from disadvantaged communities, to get them to work together and play together. After the pandemic we will need art and music to heal the soul of the community. 

“I am a son of Sistema,” he says, summing up his credo. “I believe in music as an important tool for social change. At the end it is all about that.”

The Sound/Stage filmed concerts are released on the Los Angeles Philharmonic website to November 20,
laphil.com

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