Gustavo! Gustavo! Gustavo!
It’s unlikely that anyone driving around LA lately hasn’t noticed the signs, billboards and banners welcoming famed conductor Gustavo Dudamel to the city. They’re pretty hard to miss. Although I was glad to see them, I did wonder to myself how many other people glancing at them knew who the handsome young Venezuelan is, or, for that matter, even cared.
Being a somewhat optimistic classical music fan, and having refused to buy into the current myth (and despite what you’ve heard, it is a myth) that so-called “classical” music is at death’s door, and that the only people still interested in this art form are white-haired eighty-somethings driving motorized wheelchairs equipped with state-of-the-art oxygen tanks, I naturally have welcomed the coming of St. Gustavo with open arms. But I did believe that, despite the press blitz, most of Los Angeles would remain apathetic toward a man who represents (next to Lawrence Welk or Liberace, perhaps) the least hip genre of music imaginable. But now I think I might be wrong. And I’m oh so glad I am.
There hasn’t been a welcome of this nature for a classical musician in this city since, perhaps, the days of Stokowski or Leonard Bernstein. I certainly haven’t seen such a thing in my lifetime (I just turned forty-three). And you may be thinking that it’s all hype. Believe me, it ain’t.
First off, Dudamel, despite his youth (he’s only twenty-eight), is a great musician. He most certainly is not a creation of the press, and the accolades he has received have been well earned. He single-handedly turned the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (of which Dudamel is a native son) into a world class ensemble, with recordings of Mahler’s 5th Symphony and the Tchaikovsky 5th (both released on Deutsche Grammaphon) that are second to none. But beyond that is the energy that Dudamel exudes on the podium – it’s real, it’s palpable, you can taste it. Add to that the mixture his personal charm and magnanimous personality and you have the makings of the perfect ambassador for “classical” music.
And, of course, that’s precisely what Dudamel is, and this is the torch of hope that the young man has become in our weary i-phone age. At a time when music has become an expendable commodity, as readily available and easily disposable as Kleenex, Dudamel brings the excitement of musical discovery back into the lives of everyone who hears, works with, or learns from him. And that is why his presence in Los Angeles, a city that so sorely needs a cultural leader, is so exciting. And I think that is why everyone, from the press, to the students, to the public at large, has so ardently embraced him.
Not to mention those dimples!
I was a Dudamel fan long before the evening of October 3rd, 2009, so the marathon “Bienvenido Gustavo!” concert I attended, along with 17,999 other ardent fans, was not, for me at least, going to be a testing ground, only a demonstration of mutual love. Or at least I hoped it would be.
It is hard to describe the concert, if you even could call it that. I have a feeling it will go down, along with Woodstock and the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, as one of the great “you had to be there” kind of events in recent history. The whole thing felt like a mini love-in. And it was: not only a Dudamel love fest, but a love fest for music, education, and (dare I say it?) cultural diversity – a trait Los Angeles, like any urban Mecca, is known for.
And everything was in place: guest appearances (some of them unannounced) by musical legends like Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Flea, Jack Black, Taj Mahal….the list goes on and on. All six hours were captured in national radio broadcasts and international webcasts. The Hollywood Bowl, the event’s venue, was packed to capacity. And the whole darned thing was free (sponsored by Target – oddly, when a representative from Target got up to speak there was a decided and very audible claque of “boos” heard amidst the polite applause – we really hate corporate America, even when it provides us with free culture). Unprecedented.
...Which is what made this evening so very, very unique. And which is also why it reflected so well what Dudamel represents. Music is for the people, the message seems to be, not for the elite. Music can uplift, transform, can even change the world. A powerful message, but it felt very real, very believable. Hearing dozens of talented young jazz, pop and classical musicians (ranging from ages 8-18) proved to me that we have nothing to fear as far as the future of music is concerned. And the people -- people from every walk of life, every age group, of every ethnicity -- adored it.
And then came the Beethoven.
If the love and joy which seemed to be epidemically running rampant through the crowd of the lucky 18,000 hadn’t already made the afternoon unforgettable, what followed was, at least for me, a life-changing experience. I sat back in awe as I listened to Gustavo Dudamel conduct what undoubtedly was one of the most inspiring and jaw-droppingly beautiful performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that I have ever heard. I’m not being hyperbolic here -- this was something to tell future generations about.
Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe it was the overpowering feeling of love that the day had produced and the startling conviction of the unity of humanity that Beethoven’s masterpiece celebrates (“aller menschen werden brüder,” Schiller’s text reads – “all mankind will be brothers”). Maybe it was the ½ bottle of wine I had consumed, but I think it was something more than that. As the camera panned over the chorus singing Beethoven’s life-affirming music and I saw the whole range of humanity reflected in those glorious choristers, as I mused on what Dudamel’s presence means to our city, as I pondered what treasures the coming years will undoubtedly bring, and as I realized that great music, truly great music, will live on as long as this planet has life, I sighed with joy, contentment, a love of humanity, and with the knowledge that I had been witness to musical history.
If you'd like to see and hear more about Gustavo, check out these videos, both of him conducting and an interview: