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Profile of the Dynamic Venezuelan Conductor Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel. Photo: AP.

Gustavo Dudamel. Photo: AP.

A “Yes We Can” Maestro

The young Venezuelan maestro warms up for his move to Los Angeles

Jan 15th 2009  |  The Economist

Guest conductors at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra are not usually allowed to use Leonard Bernstein’s batons. Gustavo Dudamel is one of the few. There are similarities between the passionate, intuitive music making of the Philharmonic’s most famous music director and Mr Dudamel, who becomes music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next season. But perhaps of greater significance is the vision that the 27-year-old Venezuelan shares with Bernstein that the arts are a means of improving society.

Mr Dudamel, who is back in New York this month conducting Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which he has made something of a signature piece, is a product of el sistema. The much-lauded Venezuelan network of youth orchestras, founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, provides free instruments and tuition to children and teenagers, many from deprived areas who might otherwise be tempted by drugs and petty crime.The success of Mr Dudamel and el sistema inspired the recent launch of the Youth Orchestra LA (YOLA), which also aims to help disadvantaged children. Mr Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic hope to expand the programme throughout the metropolitan area, following the example of the Venezuelan system, which encompasses hundreds of ensembles.

Those include the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which Mr Dudamel has conducted since 1999 and with which he has released several vibrant recordings on the Deutsche Grammophon label, including the fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler. In 2007 the young musicians impressed critics and audiences with their polished performances of Beethoven and Berlioz. They donned jackets emblazoned with the Venezuelan flag for exuberant renditions of Latin American works and leapt from their seats and twirled their instruments while playing pieces from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”. As Mr Dudamel says, “The Latin blood is like champagne. There’s always movement. People say we Venezuelans are crazy and we are. It’s our soul. I’m very proud of this.”

Mr Dudamel, who trained initially as a violinist, wanted to become a conductor at the age of four, after attending a concert in which his father, a professional trombonist, performed. He first attracted international attention when he won the 2004 Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LA Philharmonic’s current music director, was on the jury and told Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president, about Mr Dudamel’s prodigious talent. She recalls watching him rehearse Mahler’s fifth symphony with the orchestra of La Scala in Milan. They initially sounded “like an Italian military band playing Mahler”, she says. But after a few hours with Mr Dudamel, whose rehearsal style she describes as “polite, productive and upbeat”, the ensemble began to sound more like the Vienna Philharmonic.

Steven Witser, principal trombonist of the LA Philharmonic, appreciates how Mr Dudamel “blends youthful energy and exuberance with thoughtful and serious music making”. Many conductors are “huge personalities”, he adds, “but Gustavo has an innocence about him.” A warm welcome also awaits Mr Dudamel outside the concert hall. The Los Angeles Lakers gave him a jersey decorated with his name.

An idealist in the Bernstein mould, the energetic curly-haired maestro believes the state should offer every child in America a musical education, as happens in Venezuela. “We have to educate society. With music or arts, it has to be coming from the state. This will come, I’m sure,” he says with the optimism of someone who hasn’t yet lived in a country without low-cost health care, much less free violins. “When you change the life of one kid, you change the life of the complete family. When you’re in front of these kids, you realise it’s very important not only for the future of classical music, but for the future of the world.” A “yes we can” maestro indeed.

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