Gustavo Dudamel, interviewed by Mark Swed (Gramophone, August 2011)

James McCarthy
Friday, May 3, 2013

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel’s airy office in the gleaming Walt Disney Concert Hall is bathed in warm, soft, early afternoon LA light, making it a peculiar setting for an interview about his new Nordic-themed recordings with the Gothenburg Symphony. Moreover, the 30-year-old Venezuelan conductor has Brahms on his mind. He is halfway through Brahms Unbound, a festival with which he is wrapping up his second season as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director. Over a span of five weeks he matches each of the composer’s four symphonies and the German Requiem with new music. His morning dress rehearsal was of the Brahms Second and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion, a massive concerto for five soloists, the stage crowded with a vast variety of percussion instruments. Add a further distraction: he is a new father.

But Dudamel can easily launch into a discussion (replete with extensive sung examples) of Nielsen’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, Sibelius’s Second and Bruckner’s Ninth – the repertoire of the new three-disc Deutsche Grammophon set – as if teleported some 6000 miles to Sweden. Or back to his native Venezuela, since these symphonies have indelible associations with his youth. Most interviews with this fantastically in-demand conductor (and he doesn’t give many these days) still focus exclusively on the phenomenon of Venezuela’s El Sistema and his emergence from that remarkable music education programme. But he’s a musician who really thinks about the music he conducts and it is this about which I want to ask him. Underestimating his photographic memory, I bring the scores along in case he wants to refer to them. Dudamel conducts pretty much everything other than new works from memory.

He became music director of the Gothenburg Symphony in 2007 for obvious reasons. Dudamel’s accelerated rise to fame after winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004 clearly out-paced his professional conducting experience. Sweden’s second city had a respected orchestra, founded by the composer Wilhelm Stenhammar in 1905, but Gothenburg was none the less far enough from the limelight that Dudamel might build his repertoire and learn the ways of running a professional orchestra without attracting undue international interest.

At least that must have been the high hopes of his management. Dudamel himself seems altogether delighted in calling attention to his early work in Gothenburg. The DG set is devoted to live recordings made during his first three seasons with the orchestra of works he had not conducted before, with the exception of two student performances of the Sibelius. The Bruckner Ninth was his first Bruckner. His only experience with Nielsen had been a single performance of the First Symphony. “I want to keep the memory alive,” he says.

The idea of embarking on Nielsen and Sibelius in Gothenburg also has obvious appeal. Nielsen had been assistant conductor to Stenhammar in 1918 and again in 1921 and 1922. Sibelius led his Second Symphony with the orchestra on three occasions. For this recording, Dudamel conducted the orchestra’s 138th performance of the Second.

Coming to Gothenburg as a 26-year-old from Venezuela, where his previous experience as a music director was with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, and speaking very little English – “It is still difficult for me,” he admits – Dudamel cites the “amazing contrast” of what he had expected the players to be and what they turned out to be. “It is a culture very far from my Latin soul,” he observes. “But when I arrived there it was magic.” Still, Dudamel learnt that even with the most open-minded musicians, it takes time for a relationship to develop, no matter how much goodwill exists. They knew the Nielsen and Sibelius symphonies so well that he found they could play them perfectly after a single rehearsal. But he insisted on exploring the works anew, from bottom up, in marathon five- and six-hour rehearsals. The fact is, Nielsen was hugely exotic to Dudamel, and Dudamel was just as exotic to the Swedes. Dudamel credits the final result to be a 50-50 exchange, as a young conductor from a radically different background tested his ideas against the orchestra’s collective wisdom.

As anyone who has witnessed this young conductor knows, he has an infectious enthusiasm that can disarm even the crustiest of players. When I visited Gothenburg two years ago, Christer Thorvaldsson, then the leader, who had been with the the orchestra for 36 years, told me that Dudamel was the best conductor he had ever worked with.

Dudamel likes to credit his success to his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the famed Venezuelan youth music programme El Sistema, and it was Abreu who surprised the young Dudamel with Nielsen. “One day, Maestro Abreu called me into his office,” Dudamel recalls. “He was sitting there, and he handed me a score. ‘Now you have to learn this,’ he said. It was Nielsen Four. “‘Let’s follow the score,’ he 4told me as he put on a recording. I don’t remember which one it was. And you know, it was a different world. How the lines break and jump to another thing with no relation to what went before was completely different from the Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler I had grown up with.

“The first movement is so many things. How do you say it, eclectic? But when you arrive to the second movement, it’s like a sweet smell.” Here Dudamel begins singing and continues doing so, getting more and more excited as he illustrates the symphony. “My God, after all these crazy things, everything is right there.

“What I remember of the third movement is the effect it had on Maestro Abreu. The third movement is one of the most amazing things I have ever conducted in my life, and when Maestro Abreu listened he became very dramatic. But the image I will always have in my head is watching Maestro Abreu during the last movement, with the dialogue between the timpani. By then I had stopped reading the score, and began studying him. He looked like a titan.” Here Dudamel sinks down in his chair and adopts a hysterical grin as he sings long passages from the finale in a hilariously crazed manner, all the notes becoming the ha‑ha‑has of manic laughter. Dudamel describes the office becoming dark and Abreu’s eyes looking as if they were on fire as he laughed and sang. “That, I think, will always be with me when I conduct Nielsen.”

Dudamel’s associations with Sibelius and Bruckner produce equally vivid memories of his past. One weekend day when he was a teenager in his home town of Barquisimeto, he was walking by the foyer of a theatre. “We were doing things that teenagers do,” he says. “We had been studying music and now we were going to a place where we could play Nintendo. The doors to the theatre were open and a rehearsal was going on. From the foyer I could hear the brass playing the middle part of the first movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony,” which Dudamel illustrates by singing in a booming voice. “And, wow, it was so warm, that brass sound. I didn’t know who the composer was or anything about Sibelius, and three or four years passed until I finally heard the symphony. And it was an like an explosion in my head when that brass theme came in.”

That was before Dudamel actually contended with Scandinavian brass sound. The orchestra approached dynamics less excitedly than had been Dudamel’s natural wont. “When the orchestra sees a fortissimo, they keep this dark and very gentle colour,” he says. “It’s never PAAAM, PAH, PAH, but paaam, pah, pah,” which he describes by singing the opening of the Sibelius Second up to its first crescendo. “It’s always a noble sound. And I think that is a Nordic tradition. The brass school in Scandinavia is very solid. They have this kind of very round sound. So I try to approach the music close to that tradition.”

Neeme Järvi, who was music director of the Gothenburg Symphony from 1982 to 2004 (succeeded for three years by Mario Venzago), recorded complete Sibelius and Nielsen symphony cycles with the orchestra. Dudamel sees his mission to “create a new history” while not significantly altering the orchestra’s inherent sound. “To say you want to change the sound is not respectful,” he insists. “I prefer to say that you try to balance the parts. You have your ideas but you must try to find a balance. And what you hope for is, let’s say, a new inspiration.”

The recordings of Nielsen’s Fifth and Bruckner’s Ninth were made in Dudamel’s first season in Gothenburg, and Bruckner may be the most audacious choice of all. “I wanted to start with the Ninth,” Dudamel explains, “and I remember Barenboim telling me that the first Furtwängler Bruckner was the Ninth, and also that it was Barenboim’s first Bruckner.”

Dudamel softly hums the symphony’s opening bars. He studied the piece in the Venezuelan mountains and his arms unfold expansively as he describes how he absorbed Bruckner’s sense of monumentality in a house that was in the shadow of the 16,000ft Pico Bolívar. “All the time I was looking at that mountain learning Bruckner and saying, ‘Wow, it’s God’, and you feel very small. I said to my friends, to everybody, Bruckner changes your life as a conductor, he forces you to change the way you conduct.”

Unable to forget those mountains, Dudamel expresses what he feels is the incongruous situation of having to be in control of the Brucknerian moment while remaining under the spell of the bigger picture, the looming mountain. Like that mountain, all Bruckner symphonies have a similar outward structure, Dudamel suggests, and their very sonic presence makes him feel alive.

Advance copies of the recordings were not available before the interview but in a performance of Bruckner’s Seventh with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season, Dudamel adopted radically slow tempi. “Tempo is very subjective,” he answers when I ask him about his recent propensity for such broad interpretations. The Brahms First that began Brahms Unbound was equally extreme, as was Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique last year. If Dudamel’s singing of the opening of the Sibelius Second is anything to go by, it, too, will be time-stopping.

Dudamel explains that he is often looking for precise tempo relationships throughout a piece. In the Brahms symphony he needed a slow start so that he could exactly double the tempo at the end. But that is hardly subjective, and he confesses to a fondness for creating a sense of holding back when a symphony begins with a slow introduction, so that he can have a spectacular launch into an allegro.

“The slow tempi are not to show that I’m an old conductor and that I want to conduct slower, like Celibidache,” he is quick to note. “No, no. And maybe in the future I will change.”

A year ago, a penchant for slowness in the Pathétique got Dudamel into hot water with some critics when he included Tchaikovsky’s symphony on his first tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The reviews were mixed and Dudamel describes a meeting with the Philharmonic artistic committee afterwards. “I was telling them that when I think back to the Pathétique I was wondering myself why it was so slow in the first Allegro. If it’s marked allegro, was this too slow? I think it was necessary for me to be slow at that time to maintain tension. Now I want to keep that same amount of tension but make it a little faster.

“Right now I need the space to sustain things and then, in the future, maybe it will be faster. Sometimes I am really fast. Or maybe it will be slower but not heavy, just intense. I love it when the sound is intense all the time. Even if we have a diminuendo, less, less, less is more powerful when the intensity increases. This is the thing that we are learning together,” he says of his orchestras in Gothenburg and Los Angeles. “But sometimes to think a lot is not good. Maybe to think less makes things more natural.”

Next season will be Dudamel’s sixth and last in Sweden. He has been made an honorary conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony and an honorary citizen of the town. He will continue to work with the orchestra, he promises, and says he would like next to record some of the living Swedish composers he has met and now champions, particularly Anders Hillborg. It was in Gothenburg that Dudamel first began learning new music.

By coincidence, his first major premiere was Gubaidulina’s Glorious Percussion, which the symphony had commissioned. He didn’t know what to make of it when he first looked at the score but now he is in love with the work and with doing new pieces. Already in Los Angeles Dudamel programmes substantially more new and recent music than any conductor of a major US orchestra. “I’m not so old. I’m 30. But I feel old,” says Dudamel at one point, already having mapped out at least the outlines of his 30s. His next few years will be primarily devoted to the LA Philharmonic, where his contract was recently extended to run through the 2018-19 season. Nor will he relinquish the music directorship of the Caracas orchestra he grew up with. He calls the players his family, and now it will no longer be exclusively a youth orchestra (the name has changed to the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and, although the ensemble of more than 200 continues to grow with fresh recruits as young as 14 and 15, there will no longer be a cut-off age).

Asked if he thinks he’s changed since that Bruckner Ninth three years ago, Dudamel answers: “Yes, a lot. When I go back and I listen to music I was doing before, I say, ‘My God, why was I doing that?’ Sometimes you forget. I have a good memory and I can remember perfectly things, notes, pages. I can see the pages.

“But sometimes ideas change. When you go back to a symphony you say, ‘OK, I have a new idea.’ But I love to remember how was the first time, why I was thinking that way. I’m sure it will be different next time but I think it was a very strong beginning.” 

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