Gustavo Dudamel: an orchestra ahead of its age

Image of Harry Eyres

After an hour-and-a-half rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” with a mixed youth orchestra from east London and Los Angeles, Gustavo Dudamel felt the need to sit down on the podium. “I must be getting old,” he joked (in fact he had every reason to feel a little weary, having just returned from a flying visit back to Venezuela to conduct at the state funeral of Hugo Chávez). It was not entirely a joke, because Dudamel, in his thirties, a little bit more rounded than when I last saw him, suddenly appeared if not middle-aged, then old enough to be a (young) father to the youngest of the musicians in the orchestra.

And not entirely a joke because one of Dudamel’s great calling-cards has always been his youth; he has been the whizz-kid and posterboy of the classical music world, mamboing with the exuberant teenagers of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in their Latin American encores. But time waits for no man or woman; the SBYOV itself is not as youthful as it was, and Dudamel is now chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a grown-up in a grown-up’s world. Having enjoyed ecstatic press, he has had to endure a few critical brickbats.

If you wanted to be cynical, you might question the whole premise of a youth orchestra project carried out under the banner “Discover Dudamel”. But then the man himself questions it: “I don’t like that,” he said, pointing at the “Discover Dudamel” T-shirts worn by all the members of the orchestra – a gesture which no doubt brought on unpleasant palpitations in a host of PR and marketing people. He hardly needed to explain further; the point was not really to discover Dudamel, but to explore and discover the music. In the end I think the young players from the Barbican Youth Orchestra, the Centre for Young Musicians, Junior Guildhall, the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles discovered even more than the music. We will come to that.

But to start with the music. Or rather to start with the beginning – not the beginning of the piece, the Friar Laurence wind chorale music, but the beginning of the Allegro giusto section, depicting the fighting Montagues and Capulets. In the run-through, the orchestra had played this competently enough, I thought, but Dudamel was not satisfied. He spent half an hour analysing this short section in unrelenting detail with the young players, urging them to give more weight and attack, to articulate the rhythm still more precisely, to extract more colour and meaning. None of the great martinet conductors of the past, not George Szell or Fritz Reiner, could have been more exigent, but Dudamel uses playful humour, not withering sarcasm: “These are not wooden swords they are fighting with,” he said at one point.

As they went through the same phrase again and again, I thought I could detect a certain incredulity on the faces of some of the young players: no one had ever asked or expected them to do anything like this, with this much attention to detail. Dudamel seemed to read their minds: “You are doing so well, that’s why I am asking so much of you.”

And so we came to the great love tune – “one of the finest themes in the whole of Russian music”, as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called it. The violas and the cor anglais had played it a bit tentatively, first time round. Dudamel started by asking the young string players to do something simple: “Take a breath. You think only wind and brass players need to breathe – string players need to breathe, too.”

The disarming Dudamel humour came into play once more: “You play like that, I think Juliet is going to go with another guy.” Then he waxed more lyrical: “You love this girl, you love life. When you feel like that, you want to embrace the world, the universe.” The teenagers watched him and they didn’t blink or snigger. Next time round the theme sounded transfigured: it had gone from anaemic (not to say slightly asthmatic) to full-blooded.

The change Dudamel had achieved with this group of young players was not just musical, though it certainly was that. He somehow managed to get them playing very difficult string semiquaver passages like seasoned pros – saying “this is our job as conductors, to ask of the orchestra things that are impossible”. But the transformation went deeper. The kids had started out sounding like nervous adolescents and they had ended up playing with the passion of young adults. That was also, I suppose, what happened to Romeo and Juliet.

At the end, they played not the Tchaikovsky, but, in a charming gesture to their hosts at the Barbican Centre, one of the greatest pieces of English music. The Nimrod variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations didn’t sound tentative at all, but confident and full-hearted, even noble, as Elgar demanded. Sometimes, as Dudamel said, we can be and we have to be “ahead of our age”.

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