Gustavo Dudamel has been lured back onto the stage for his second encore.
It’s Oct. 9, opening night of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2022–23 season. As the crowd spots the conductor, the volume inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall surges. He acknowledges the accolades, steps onto the podium, tilts his head back, lifts his arms, and hurls himself forward like a battering ram as the orchestra explodes into the first note of the Star Wars theme.
Dudamel’s curly mop of dark brown hair has a touch of gray now, but at 41, well over a decade into his time as the L.A. Phil’s music and artistic director, it roils atop his head with as much vigor as when he conducted in his 20s. During the sweeter passages, bent at the torso, baton fully extended, he doesn’t so much sweep across the orchestra as sail past it. His patent leather shoes are a riot of activity.
When Dudamel is done, the audience leaps to its feet with the kind of reaction you’d expect to see at a Taylor Swift concert. Dudamel doesn’t take a bow—he never bows. Instead, he motions for the orchestra to stand up and share in the acclaim. He gives a big hug to Anne-Sophie Mutter, the virtuoso violinist and tonight’s featured soloist, and another to John Williams as the 90-year-old composer of the scores for Star Wars, Jaws and many other classic movies navigates his way toward center stage. Williams and Mutter keep waving in Dudamel to join them there, but he refuses to make it a trio. Instead, he stays on the sidelines, turning toward them in profile, just one more adoring face in the crowd.
“Music is not only an element of entertainment in the society,” Dudamel tells me, sipping an espresso beneath the soaring ceiling of his Disney Hall office. He’s on break from a day of rehearsals—for which he’s chosen a black T-shirt, black jeans, and suede Nikes the color of mustard. The Steinway at his elbow is piled high with bound scores by Richard Wagner. “It is a power of transformation. You’re sitting there for a symphony that is, like, 30 or 50 minutes, and time is gone. You are on a journey of harmony and beauty to find structure in a metaphysical way. It unites us, even if we come in feeling completely different.”
Under Dudamel’s aegis for the past 13 years, the L.A. Phil has spread classical music’s unifying power well past its traditional confines—across divides of income, class, color, gender, and age. It’s an eventuality The New York Times did not envision in June 2005, when it published an article titled “Decline in Listeners Worries Orchestras.” In places, the piece, written by the Times’ classical music critic, reads like the prelude to an obituary:
What was creeping toward death’s door wasn’t classical music itself, but classical music as an elite and exclusionary art form. Within this framework, the great orchestras were dominated by towering white men of genius who safeguarded and elevated a canon dominated by towering dead white men of genius—among them Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. Performances of these masterworks were geared to an audience prideful of its elevated tastes and getting a bit long in the tooth. In a changed world where the creative voices of women and people of color have come to occupy the center of the cultural conversation and where technology-enabled disruption has become commonplace and desirable, if what you had to offer is neither new nor novel, then good luck attracting a crowd.
The emergence of Dudamel as perhaps our greatest living conductor is itself a disruption. Dudamel and the L.A. Phil often provide orchestral accompaniment for pop icons like Billie Eilish, who bring in hundreds of millions of teen- and twentysomething viewers. Their Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) has outfitted 1,500 of the city’s most vulnerable children with free violas, trumpets, and other instruments, provided free lessons, and put them on a stage. (The high school graduation rate for YOLA musicians stands at 100%, and 90% of them go on to attend college. By contrast, the Los Angeles Unified School District has a graduation rate of about 85%, and the latest data, from 2020, shows that about 61% of LAUSD students attend college.)
And through the L.A. Phil’s Dudamel Fellowship Program, Dudamel has helped bring a tidge more diversity to the podiums of the world’s great symphonies. Two of the conductors he mentored have gone on to break crystal-chandeliered ceilings before they turned 29. In 2016, Lithuanian-born Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who became the first female music director in the history of the City of Birmingham Orchestra, while next fall, Jonathon Heyward, will become the first Black music director to lead the Baltimore Symphony.
Business-wise, it’s all working. During the pandemic, the Phil expanded free online access to Dudamel’s concerts; the 2021–22 season opening gala, virtually streamed from Disney Hall, garnered 2.2 million views. Annual charitable donations to the L.A. Phil have doubled to $66 million since Dudamel took over. For fiscal year 2018-19, the last before the pandemic struck, the New York Philharmonic took in $24.8 million in concert sales, while the L.A. Phil realized $93.9 million.
Three months after the Times article appeared, Dudamel made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl. The previous year, in Bamberg, Germany, Dudamel had taken first prize in the first-ever Mahler Conducting Competition for young maestros. With that win, at age 23, he’d become a piping-hot commodity in an ailing industry. The moment he walked into his first L.A. Phil post-concert artist’s dinner, he realized that he’d been put on the menu as the evening’s main entrée. Gathered around the table were the executives of eight major American orchestras who had flown to L.A. to catch the concert and acquaint Dudamel with what their organizations had to offer.
Dudamel politely greeted the executives one by one. Then he told them that he couldn’t stay for the meal—he’d decided to celebrate at a local hot-dog stand. He left the room and flew out of town the next day. “I love this, because it’s so authentically Gustavo,” says Chad Smith—then with the New York Philharmonic, and now the L.A. Phil’s CEO. “At a time when any other conductor would be working everyone—‘What have you got for me?’—he was telling them, ‘I’m not interested. This is not what I want to do.’ It was a really eye-opening experience, that he had the wherewithal to do that and just didn’t play the game.”
Dudamel wasn’t born to play that game, nor was he nurtured, educated, or socially situated to play it. Classical music as he first experienced it was an art without hierarchy—where no one was to be excluded from the orchestra or the audience on the basis of race, ethnicity, or class. He came of age in an environment in which every young musician, regardless of talent, had intrinsic value.
Dudamel was raised in a working-class family in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. His mother was a voice teacher and his father played trombone in a salsa band. But perhaps more important to his musical development was the family he found in El Sistema, Venezuela’s nationwide classical-music education and performance program for disadvantaged youth.
It was El Sistema that welcomed a 5-year-old Dudamel into its fold. It was El Sistema that first put a violin in his hands three years later. Founded in 1975 by the late conductor and philanthropist José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema continues to provide free instruments, one-on-one lessons, and social support to its students, as well as a sense of agency and self-worth that for many of them had been in short supply. After Dudamel traded in his bow for a conductor’s baton, Abreu would become his teacher, mentor, and greatest artistic influence. Dudamel still calls him “my maestro.”
L.A. Phil launched its YOLA program in 2007 after Dudamel took Smith, then the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, and Deborah Borda, its then-CEO, on a guided tour of El Sistema’s good works in Venezuela. He even introduced them to his maestro. To many of the musicians of YOLA, Dudamel has become what Abreu was to him—a teacher, a cheerleader, and a resounding reminder of what’s achievable.
Dudamel had only been playing violin a few months when he was assigned to the very back of the second-violin section of an El Sistema 600-piece orchestra, scheduled to perform at the 437th anniversary celebration of his city’s founding. He could only coax three notes out of his instrument and felt painfully out of his depth. Early into a rehearsal, just before a run-through of the Venezuelan national anthem, he decided to quit. “I said to my teacher, ‘I cannot play this,’” Dudamel recalls. “And he says, ‘Just enjoy, live the moment—and you will see.’”
He did. “We played that first note,” Dudamel says, “and that moment, this feeling went across my body and my ears. This physical dimension of the soul of the space! The music transformed me and, I’m sure, half the students there. We were all transformed that day.”
As Dudamel remembers it, even after he became a teenage conducting sensation, he wasn’t so much intent on leading a great orchestra someday as making a living playing music with his El Sistema friends. “That was the most wonderful thing,” Dudamel says. “We were all creating our own path as a group. That’s why, as a conductor, I feel like another musician in the orchestra.”
When the virtuoso pianist Yuja Wang teams up with Dudamel, they usually tackle some of the most technically difficult compositions ever written. In 2017 they performed the full cycle of Béla Bartók’s near-impossible-to-play piano concertos. In February 2023 they’ll be doing much the same with Rachmaninoff. However bruising the material, Wang expects the rehearsals and performance to be as stress-free as always.
“The vibe with Gustavo is ‘We’re just having fun with the music,’” Wang says. “‘I’m here just to encourage and stimulate you and get your creative juices flowing, but I’m not here to interfere.’”
Dudamel’s musicians hear little from him about technical adjustments and a lot about a composition’s spiritual dimension. As the L.A. Phil’s longtime jazz chair, pianist and composer Herbie Hancock has been a close observer of Dudamel’s improvisational approach to the classical canon. “With all the experience that Gustavo’s had, he has everything at his disposal,” Hancock says. “I think he feels comfortable enough to try something new—to not always do this like that—and still remain true to the composer of the piece.”
“He’s living in the moment when he conducts,” Hancock continues, “and that’s jazz: in the moment.”
Crossing genre barriers is Dudamel’s specialty. At the Super Bowl L halftime show in 2016, a YOLA orchestra led by Dudamel performed with Coldplay before a live crowd of 71,000 and a television audience of more than 111 million. Last fall, the conductor’s collaboration with Billie Eilish was released as a concert film on Disney+, appealing to the singer-songwriter’s 106.5 million Instagram followers. The thousands who packed the Bowl for an evening of Dudamel and Gwen Stefani this past June had no difficulty belting out every last line of the smash hit “Hollaback Girl,” but presumably would have had a harder time humming along to the baritone solo in Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
“I’m so blessed to have the chance to work with all of these great artists,” Dudamel says. “And to break these barriers of what is classical and what is pop.”
As the L.A. Phil’s chief executive, Chad Smith sees opportunity where Dudamel sees art. “I try to spend as much time with Gustavo as I can because I never know when that moment, that spark of an idea, will make itself known,” Smith says. “I want to see that sense of wonder and excitement about something that he wants to do. And then my job is, ‘Alright, how do we make this happen?’”
In the Dudamel era, the L.A. Phil has the will and the means. In fiscal year 2009–10, which coincided with the conductor’s first season leading the orchestra, the organization reported $33 million in charitable donations. Nine years later, the total had risen to double that—$66 million. This season’s opening gala alone yielded $3.5 million in giving.
Though there’s been no shortage of outside interest, Dudamel has extended his contract with the L.A. Phil through the 2025–26 season. The roots he put down in Los Angeles have spread far beyond Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. In October 2021 the Beckman YOLA Center opened its doors after months of COVID-related delays. Frank Gehry had donated his services to transform this former bank building into a flagship for lessons, recording, and performance in the historically Black (and often neglected) city of Inglewood, hard by the Los Angeles International Airport.
On his first tour of the Beckman, Dudamel took in the practice studio, the ensemble room, the choir rooms, the parents’ lounge, the two light-drenched performance spaces with 45-foot ceilings, engineered by the same acoustician who fine-tuned Disney Hall. And the conductor wept. “In the end, the worst thing about being poor is to be no one,” Dudamel says. “It’s not just a material thing. It’s knowing you are separate from the rest.”
The conductor recalls something his mentor Abreu once told him—how the destitute young musicians of El Sistema shouldn’t have to make do with what’s merely adequate; how they must be provided with the best instruments, the best teachers, and the most inspired spaces in which to grow and thrive.
“My maestro always said that the culture for the poor people cannot be a poor culture,” Dudamel says. “That’s beautiful! Give these children the resources, and they will create their own future—their own dimension.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi couldn’t have put it better.
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