There is a three-ring circus around Gustavo Dudamel when we meet in Berlin. We talk at the headquarters of Universal Music, where Dudamel is busy editing his most recent recording for Deutsche Grammophon; he is their bestselling living conductor.
He is also in town conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, where, just days after Simon Rattle’s shock announcement that he will not renew his contract as principal conductor after 2018, his name is on everyone’s list of possible successors for the post. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which he has been music director since 2009, he is about to go on tour in London, Paris, Lucerne and New York.
At 32, Dudamel is a favourite guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and a regular at La Scala, Milan. When we first met, in 2004, he was a raw 23-year-old from a Venezuelan backwater. He had grown up in circumstances of moderate economic hardship, and had won the prestigious Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg just months earlier. He was enthusiastic, affable and unspoilt; he spent his first full salary packet on a new kitchen for his grandmother.
In less than a decade, Dudamel has ascended to the zenith of the international musical firmament, ranking alongside the best-paid and most-wanted conductors on the planet. With his corkscrew curls and laughing intensity, he has become more than just another maestro. Rolex has bankrolled a foundation in his name; Salzburg plans a summer extravaganza around him; Hollywood is releasing a film about Simón Bolívar (Libertador, starring Edgar Ramírez), for which he wrote the music. Dudamel has become his own brand.
“To have a relationship with the best orchestras in the world – what else can you ask for?” Dudamel is still everything he was in 2004 – even the unspoilt part – but he is more polished, articulate and confident now. And he does ask for more, he is quick to add. “To give the message of El Sistema is also very important to me, and I will keep fighting for that, in the best sense. I want to give the message of how important music can be for society.”
In anyone else, that might sound glib. But Dudamel is a product of the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, the country’s hugely hyped scheme for social change through music. Since José Antonio Abreu founded the project 38 years ago, El Sistema has given some half a million children, most from below the poverty line, the chance to improve their circumstances through participation in an orchestral programme. Dudamel has become their poster boy.
“Maestro Abreu is a visionary,” says Dudamel. “He has changed hundreds of thousands of lives, including mine. When he looks at you, he doesn’t look at you now. He sees you in 10 years’ time.”
Dudamel is, arguably, living the life that Abreu mapped out for him. He began to play the violin when he was 10, and started conducting two years later; by the time he was 18, Abreu had appointed him as music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s flagship national youth orchestra – a post he still holds today. Abreu’s leverage of El Sistema into the international press and his grooming of elect musicians for high-profile careers was masterminded with unnerving effectiveness.
The result is a raft of El Sistema spin-offs everywhere from Gothenburg to Adelaide. With funded institutions under increasing pressure to prove their social value, the El Sistema model hit the headlines at exactly the right time. Of course, though it is founded on ideals, El Sistema has always had the significant advantage of generous government funding – partly the result of Venezuela’s oil money, partly a testimony to Abreu’s formidable lobbying skills.
“I cannot say that music is the only thing that will save the world,” says Dudamel. “But I’m saying we have pushed art far away from the main focus of society. But music is important. Because it’s real. And it’s beauty.
“The pragmatic way of working that we have is dangerous for the future of our children. We are losing our sense of how to enjoy life. And when you play music, there is no time any more. It’s beauty, and joy. We have to give our children access to that.”
Since becoming a father himself the year before last, Dudamel says he feels more passionate than ever about the next generation.
“You see how the world is working. And we cannot stand back and say, ‘OK, I will not do anything.’ I do it through music because it’s what I do and it’s what I understand.”
A sense of social responsibility is programmed into El Sistema participants from the moment they first enter a nucleo – the system’s term for local music schools, where commitment to the collective is part of the deal for everybody. All members of the Simón Bolívar orchestra (which has dropped the “youth” from its name as its members collectively grow up) also teach or direct a nucleo. And for Dudamel, too, it is a given. He spends 20 weeks a year in Venezuela’s capital Caracas, working with El Sistema – more than he spends anywhere else. He refuses a salary for his work there, and demands that all musicians who come to work with him in Venezuela also donate their time.
When he took over the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he instigated the foundation of a youth music project with social goals, YOLA, which is on the brink of expanding to its third orchestra.
“It’s amazing to see how the children have changed in just four years,” he says. “Personally, socially, and also artistically.”
He also founded a similar project in Sweden, where he spent seven years as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. He is well-versed in the growing international debate around El Sistema; his status brings both an independence of movement and an autonomy that enable him to evolve his own views on where the concept should be going, though he continues to consult Abreu on a regular basis.
“People can argue about ideas. And that is right, you know? I don’t think there can ever be a unanimous opinion about a big project, especially if it is an artistic and social project.
“People often say, ‘We don’t have the same social problems or issues in this country.’ Well, I’m not talking about a social thing in the same sense. The social issue is youth and the future and access to culture. Some countries have poor people and criminality. In others, young people are committing suicide because they don’t see a future. It’s a kind of social chaos. We have to give our children a chance to be creative, to have access to art. Because art is important.”
It is Dudamel’s personal credo: Music is beauty. We need beauty. Children must have access to music. It sounds simplistic but reads as genuine. The question of whether his career has taken him too far too fast does not seem to enter his mind. He turns down more commercial offers in favour of his time in Venezuela; he leaves a trail of social development projects in his wake; he insists on combining educational work with his orchestral tours.
When he brings the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the Barbican for a week-long residency next month, Dudamel will conduct an orchestra made up of children from east London and Los Angeles in between concerts, while orchestral members give masterclasses. The orchestra is presenting its Green Umbrella series, with music of the 21st century. The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ newest oratorio, features along with an all-20th-century programme. The future looks young.
In the decade since his Bamberg win, Dudamel has developed his own strong artistic and social goals, neither of which hurt the Dudamel brand. On the contrary. He has been superbly managed and brilliantly marketed; to him, these are means to the end of huge philanthropic ambitions. Within a decade, his foundation will have grown to encompass three signature projects – one rewarding conductors for social vision, one developing youth orchestras in underserved communities, and one a gathering point where technology is used to advocate universal music education. Meanwhile, his contract in Los Angeles extends until 2018 – just when the Berlin job comes up. So would he consider it?
“The orchestra’s options are huge, and I’m sure they will make the best decision,” he says. “The world is full of great conductors. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now. For me it’s an honour to be part of the rumours. But, well, there’s still a long time to think.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel are in residency at the Barbican, London, March 13-17; tour also includes Paris, Lucerne and New York. www.barbican.org.uk