¡Viva Maestro! - the new documentary by director Ted Braun about conductor Gustavo Dudamel - to be one of those feel-good movies about a very talented musician, an entertaining film that puts his artistry on close display.I expected
But after watching the film, as I put the elements together in my mind, I felt a growing sense of unease. Actually, this documentary tells an absolutely heart-wrenching story.
At first, the film seems like it might be telling a pandemic story: the movie begins with Dudamel in Venezuela, where he is leading the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in rehearsals for a European tour, featuring Beethoven Symphonies. A narrator mentions that at this point, Dudamel had no idea that this would be his last time in Venezuela for the next three years. Of course, the pandemic brought this kind of circumstance into nearly everyone's life, and so this variety of dramatic statement no longer packs a big punch in a post-pandemic world.
But this wasn't a pandemic story at all, and Dudamel's isolation from his home country came about in a very different way. The timeline begins in 2017, and it ends before the pandemic.
Central to the story of Dudamel is the story of El Sistema, the vast, publicly financed music education system in Venezuela that was founded by José Antonio Abreu and by now has been imitated around the globe. Its purpose goes beyond providing music to children - the idea was to use music for social change; to provide children a refuge from poverty. The seminal 2006 documentary about the program is called Tocar y Luchar - an El Sistema mantra, "to play and to fight."
Dudamel, born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, is arguably the star product of "El Sistema," having honed his considerable conducting skills as Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra, El Sistema's top ensemble. He took the post at the age of 18, with Abreu as his mentor. By age 27, he was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
The central conflict in this film is brought on by the political situation in Venezuela, where a constitutional crisis in 2017 ignites protests and deadly violence. In the film, Dudamel expresses his reluctance to get involved in Venezuela's politics. But then one of El Sistema's students - an 18-year-old violist - is killed in the streets during the protests. Following this, Dudamel pens a statement, which is published by the New York Times.
In the film, Dudamel goes from being El Sistema's central figure and organizing force, visiting hundreds of adoring youth and leading its top orchestra in concerts around the world, to being banned from Venezuela as a result of his speaking out. The government cancels two tours that Dudamel was to have taken with the Simón Bolívar orchestra. Then the orchestra almost completely disbands, as its members escape Venezuela's troubles to join orchestras around the world. In the midst of all this tumult, El Sistema's founder and Dudamel's mentor, José Abreu, passes away in March 2018, and Dudamel must grieve from afar.
Along the way, the documentary captures remarkable moments, both poetic and devastating. The rehearsal footage alone would be enough to carry the entire film, without even mentioning the conflict. Dudamel inspires the musicians with both his insights about the music ("make it sound more like champagne, less like moonshine!") and his insistence that the musicians reject "comfort" in their playing, instead finding the tension and excitement to give their everything in performance. He has the musicians of the Simon Bolivar nearly jumping out of their seats with well-directed energy.
Dudamel also speaks eloquently in a series of interviews, filmed during car rides, in green rooms and in his office. "Art, culture, goes beyond entertainment," he said. "It heals the community. It heals the soul of the people."
But reality takes this documentary into other interesting territory. Interviews with Alejandro Carreño, who was at the time the concertmaster of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, shed light on the pain of leaving the orchestra during this difficult time. As the situation worsens in Venezuela, Carreño decides to move his family to Berlin and play in orchestras there. He observes that his music-making had always been among his "brothers" - the musicians of El Sistema who had grown up together and ascended to the top orchestra together. To go from such a tight-woven community to an orchestra full of strangers - it was a new feeling.
One unforgettable scene illustrates the difficulty for Dudamel in keeping his connection to Venezuela during this time, while living his life in Los Angeles. It also involves something that was rare in 2017 but completely ubiquitous now: Dudamel directs a rehearsal via Zoom (or something like it). Somehow director Ted Braun managed to get cameras rolling on both ends of the line - with the Simon Bolivar orchestra in Venezuela and with Dudamel in Los Angeles. In Venezuela, a stage full of musicians focuses on two enormous screens placed out in the audience, showing Dudamel's giant face as he watches over the shoulder of a young conductor who is live-conducting the orchestra in his absence. Back in Los Angeles, Dudamel sits at his desk, crouched over the computer, watching intently and occasionally stopping the orchestra to offer suggestions and comments. Suddenly Dudamel's screen goes blank. "Oh no!" he says with dismay, "the battery!" The line is cut.
Without being very explicit about it, this documentary speaks to the idea that while music can build communities, that line can be cut. In the film, Venezuela's political turmoil rips apart the Simon Bolivar orchestra. In the years after the film's time frame, the pandemic puts a halt to orchestral performances all over the world.
But in the midst of so much disruption, the film also shows Dudamel continuing to deliver a message of hope and creating ways to connect and re-connect through music. Cut off from Venezuela, Dudamel, along with composer Arturo Marquez, helps organize a giant pan-American orchestra summit in Mexico for young musicians. And when Abreu dies, Dudamel brings together musicians for a memorial concert outside of Venezuela, in Santiago, Chile.
The name of that earlier El Sistema documentary - "Tocar y Luchar" - used to puzzle me. "To play and to fight" - why "to fight"? You may have to read between the lines to find it, but this new documentary has a lot to say about the "fight." Yes, we have to fight to play. We have to keep the tension and not get comfortable. We have to make our opportunities happen, to create our musical communities and protect them. Certain forces will push toward chaos, dislocation, isolation, and ugly outcomes. Creating beauty and community is actually a struggle, and it's a worthwhile one.
You might also like:
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.