Welcome to Los Angeles, Gustavo Dudamel

October 4, 2009, 11:26 AM ·

We'd been waiting all afternoon and evening for this big moment: the appearance of Gustavo Dudamel on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, with his new title: Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The crowd at the Hollywood Bowl

He came out, not in the traditional formal wear of a conductor, but wearing a black T-shirt that said "YOLA," which stands for Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

In his first public act as Music Director, he would conduct the children of this youth orchestra, which was created two years ago, inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan system of music education in which Dudamel was raised. Later in the evening, he would lead the LA Philharmonic in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

And so it happened, that 18,000 people gave their ear to a youth symphony. These weren't prodigies, these were 200 children from south LA, nervous and excited for this important performance. The idea of making children's lives beautiful through music gleams with idealism; the reality is that it's a tremendous, arduous effort for both teachers and students. Dudamel certainly knows this, having conducted so many youth orchestras himself in his native Venezuela. There was no apologizing for the fact that kids who have played for only a few years sound like kids who have played for only a few years. Their accomplishment was tremendous; and to celebrate it, to celebrate them, is legitimate.

"The thing that excites me most is the message and symbolism of Gustavo conducting the youth orchestra that was developed at the Expo Center," said Mark Slavkin, vice president of education for the Music Center, before the concert. "These kids are part of the whole experience, and we need to reinvest in music education in the Los Angeles area in a big way."

Mark Slavkin
Mark Slavkin and his wife, Debbie

Before and after their performance, the members of YOLA sat in a place of honor, directly in front of the stage, all wearing colorful T-shirts.

"I'm kind of nervous," said clarinetist Chris Duran.

"It's exciting that we get to perform here," said clarinetist Lilia Reyes, 13. She said she loves music because "it's a nice way to express yourself" and it even can "change people's moods."

Youth orchestra musicians
YOLA musicians Karen Ramos, Juan-Carlos Guzman, Erin Duran, Lilia Reyes, Chris Duran

These weren't the only children in attendance; while walking around the Bowl, I spotted many, including a four-year-old, sitting on his mother's lap, waving a conductor's baton, and a violin student who has been in my group class many years, who had come "for the new conductor."

I also overheard a couple of teenagers, who were sitting behind me in the nosebleed section.

"So he's really big, eh?" said one girl.

"Yeah," explained her friend. "He just moved to LA..."

The pre-show, before Dudamel's entrance, involved a number of celebrities.

Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was rockin' out to a Stevie Wonder song with his kids from the Silverlake Conservatory, which he helped found with Keith Barry. In the highest regions of the Bowl, several middle-aged women were inspired to dance along, wearing their bright yellow "Bienvenido Gustavo" T-shirts.

"Flea and I met when we were about 12 or 13," Barry said. "We were music students. We've been lifelong music students ever since, and we think everyone should be able to be lifelong music students."

"What Gustavo Dudamel is doing for classical music is outrageous," said comedian Jack Black, "especially his focus on music education for the kids, it's astounding."

Herbie Hancock played with the LA County High School for the Arts Jazz Band – imagine your high school jazz band playing – at the Hollywood Bowl – just taking turns improvising solos: me, you, then take it, Herbie!

I also noticed a sizable South American contingent in attendance.

Three generations of Venezuelan music fans
Rachel Lambrose, Barbara Bishop and Lilia Almeida

High up in the Bowl sat three generations of women originally from Venezuela, sporting their home country's flag. "When we arrived at the concert, we saw people dancing to Venezuelan music," said Rachel Lambrose, who lives in Murrieta, California. It brought a tear to her grandmother's eye, "it was exciting for her, a little piece of home."

"I think it's very important, with so many things happening right now in Venezuela, politically, it puts a Venezuelan in a different light," said Barbara Bishop of Menifee, California. "[Dudamel] is so alive, you look at his face and there is light. And he tries to make classical music interesting for young people."

"Music is one of those things," Lambrose said. "You may not be able to talk to each other, but you can make music together."

Flutist and composer Pedro Eustache – who was the first-ever piccolo player in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra when he was a child in Venezuela – sat closer to the stage. He had one word for Gustavo Dudamel's new role in LA, "Amazing."

"To have a Venezuelan's picture on the back of all the buses in Los Angeles, impacting the kids, impacting the music in LA, it's just amazing," said Eustache, who grew up in Venezuela but has lived in LA for more than 20 years. "He's going to revolutionize classical music, especially in America, where we need it so much."

In the audience also was Oscar Dudamel, Gustavo's father. His feelings about the event need no translation, he said he felt "muy contento, muy optimistico."

Gustavo Dudamel's father, Oscar Dudamel
Oscar Dudamel

When an orchestra performs with Dudamel, the air just seems to vibrate, said Ingrid Sturegård, who was sitting nearby. She would know. She is a violinist in the Gothenburg Symphony, where Dudamel is in his third year as music director. "I think that everywhere, he creates an interest and a curiosity in people who don't usually go to concerts – he's like pop star," she said. Not only that, but he is a genuinely warm person, and to work with him is "tremendous, it's so energizing and vitalizing, and it's serious work," she said. "We are very happy for Los Angeles."

After all the pre-shows and the performance by the Youth Orchestra of LA, the evening culminated in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under its new Music Director. The giant video screens standing on either side of the Bowl provided the perfect opportunity to study Dudamel's conducting, along with everything else.

The first movement of the Ninth sounds to me like creation trying to take root; ideas floating around; they gel and they fall part. I wrote that down before reading the program notes which said "the dynamic energy and scope of the ideas in this movement suggest creation myths to many..." Hah! Maybe it's a theory I'd heard before, but I heard it tonight anew, as a member of the audience and not the orchestra.

I got the feeling that Dudamel gives what is needed, when it comes to his conducting gestures. It seems like a technique informed by experience, and not just experience in front of a mirror, or with pro musicians who will play well regardless, but experience with youth orchestras – ensembles that are not so easy to mold to your will.

His gestures have a strong rhythmic certainty, something that perhaps is underrated. "What, you think I'm here just to keep the beat?" I imagine a stereotypical egomaniacal conductor asking, with some indignation. But I think a wise conductor knows, this is a precious task -- as important as the beating of a person's heart. Without it, nothing works.

I loved the Scherzo, so well-calibrated and precise. Literally, "scherzo" means "joke." Dudamel got the joke and made it funny. I laughed out loud when he actually cued a section by raising one eyebrow. It occurred to me that some of the most effective conducting gestures are the funniest-looking ones. If a conductor performs a beautiful ballet for the audience, beware of what he is doing to the poor orchestra. Dudamel's gestures included jerky wing flapping, the sudden punch, even just rising on both heels.

And however clear those gestures might be, a conductor must make it quite clear to whom they directed. Dudamel did it with his eyes, and with the level of his baton – very high for a signal to the back of the orchestra. A certain kind of cue even involves not looking – when a section is playing a secondary role or should be in the background.

For me, the third movement of the symphony was memorable, because yes, I have played this as a first violinist on several occasions. Against the backdrop of a beautifully spun melody is a lot of first-violin noodling, which only gets noodlier and noodlier throughout. I detected no trepidation, and I think the reason was more than the fact that these are all such excellent players. You just get the feeling that Dudamel won't dare leave you at your moment, and there he was, sculpting every phrase, so that all those busy notes had meaning and movement. He makes it so very clear.

It's all about the movement, isn't it?…

In the fourth movement, the celli and bass have to make their way through a forest of old musical material from the previous three movements until they alight upon a theme, the theme, the "Ode to Joy" that we all know and love. This theme crept in so quietly, you could feel everyone straining to hear, and as the other sections joined, Dudamel continued to control the volume, keeping it down until everyone had joined in. And here I must say something about the soloists – all were excellent, but the baritone, Matthew Rose, was smooooooooth. In tune, on target, pure goodness.

Now forgive me if I display some snobbery here but I was appalled and exasperated when the audience broke into an unrestrained wave of joyous applause after the huge dominant cluster-chord thingie at measure 330. What? How exactly does this happen? It sounds incredibly unresolved, there is no finality to this chord. It's big, it's huge, but it in no way sounds like the end. And yet.

I suppose my disappointment was not in the ignorance of the audience; I don't care. I don't even mind the occasional applause between movements; I love an enthusiastic audience. But this disturbed what would have been a most incredible musical moment: the huge blast, followed by the tiny march – it was set up so well.

But the music goes on, all was forgiven, if not forgotten.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Children's Chorale brought things so well to life, I was no longer in a critical mood, just philosophical. A young lady whom I've seen grown up was singing, as were a number of the members of the choir in my church. I was so happy to see members of my community participating in this event.

The words for Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy" poem, on which the last movement is based, were translated into English, and alternatively into Spanish – the first Spanish words that appeared on the screens drew cheers. "Do you sense the Creator, world? Seek him beyond the starry canopy...Beyond the stars he must dwell..."

I know which Creator these words speak of, but I wondered about another one, the deaf man who wrote an epic symphony about joy toward the end of his life, trapped as he was in silence. So much joyous noise! Can he hear it across the centuries?

After the piece, Dudamel spoke.

"All these children are the future," Dudamel said, pointing toward the young musicians, given the best seats up front.

"It is so important to have our whole continent together, no North, no South," he continued. "I am very proud to be a Venezuelan, to be a South American, but I am most proud to be American."

And with that, he returned to the podium for the encore, a repeat performance of end of the "Ode to Joy," this time with fireworks.

Fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl

For those of you who would like to see the performance, click here to go the LA Phil's webcast on http://www.laphil.com/webcast/.


October 5, 2009 at 01:44 AM ·

This is so moving.

Now forgive me if I display some snobbery here but I was appalled and exasperated when the audience broke into an unrestrained wave of joyous applause after the huge dominant cluster-chord thingie at measure 330. What? How exactly does this happen?

It happens when a critical mass of people who have never even thought of going to an orchestra concert, like parents from south LA whose kids somehow have the seats of honor up front, hear something they really like for the first time.  It is actually perhaps the most telling and hopeful sign of the evening.

October 5, 2009 at 04:13 AM ·

Laurie, thank you so much.  You really conveyed the excitement of the event.  The minority groups of kids on stage, proud members of their communities in the audience, Mr. Dudamel's conducting style, the glorious performance of a glorious piece (Beethoven's Ninth), and the encore with fireworks.  I might not have believed the fireworks if you hadn't posted the picture.  I've been reading about Dudamel as the new conductor the LA Philharmonic, and I've been waiting eagerly to hear what happens.  Your article seemed bigger than life.  It must have been tremendously exciting to be there.  Thanks so much for sharing the excitement with us,

October 6, 2009 at 10:51 AM ·

Wow! What a tremendous story of hope and goodness going on in the world. Makes me feel downright sentimenal. What a great profession to be in!  THANK YOU for covering this!

October 7, 2009 at 07:22 AM ·

This was a great concert. My girlfriend actually caught the entire fireworks display (set to the last 10 or 15 minutes of Beethoven's 9th) on her cell phone.

I showed up at the concert around 5:30. I was only interested in seeing the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was a great concert. I enjoyed it greatly. I even found parking on the street, so it was completely "free." =)

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