Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dudamel, Domingo, Villazón and the New Classical Music

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Dudamel, Domingo, Villazón and the New Classical Music

Article excerpt

IN AUGUST OF 2007, A YOUTUBE VIDEO spread rapidly through the world of serious music aficionados. The three-and-a-half-minute clip was drawn from the telecast of a BBC Proms concert in London and features a diminutive, frizzy-haired young man in a windbreaker designed in the colors and patterns of the Venezuelan flag, conducting an orchestra of similarly-clad youth. The piece is the "Mambo" section from Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, and the ensemble is the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. As the clip begins, an adoring authence greets Dudamel as he steps to the podium and directs the musicians to lift their instruments over their heads. Dudamel then lifts his arms high and dives down, as the orchestra explodes with a two-note tutti fanfare, followed by feverish percussion and jerky, syncopated brass licks. The music is raucous and showy, but tight and virtuosic as well. It's instantly electric, but these kids are just getting started.

As the piece proceeds, the camera starts to catch a few players giving their instruments a little spin and bounce as they lift them to play. When they reach the spot where Bernstein asks the orchestra members to shout "mambo!," the musicians don't just speak, they leap out of their seats, raise their hands in the air, and twirl their instruments around. Then things really start getting crazy. At the syncopated dig two minutes into the piece, the winds and then the strings begin to swing back and forth in their seats in time to the music, bopping and grooving. Dudamel grins and the authence explodes with excitement. A rambunctious French horn player gets a little carried away and his colleagues laugh indulgently. Thirty seconds later, the entire orchestra stands and turns around in place, swinging their shoulders and hips, provoking more boisterous love from the authence. Two of the trumpet players twirl their instruments with both hands, showcasing a trick that every horn student has slyly practiced during a long rehearsal. Dudamel looks joyful throughout - focused, concentrated, but relaxed too. The piece ends and the roof nearly flies off the Royal Albert Hall.

I've seen grown men reduced to happy tears by this brief video. Dudamel's love of music-making, as evinced in his thrilling conducting and the sheer bliss it inspires in his musicians, somehow taps into the deep love of music that hooked us all in the first place as children. The antics of the young players may seem gimmicky, but they are executed with such elation and flair, and the music-making is so strong, that the only sensible response is cheerful surrender. What's perhaps even more astounding is that this video excerpt was actually an encore to a fulllength program featuring Dudamel conducting his young musicians in a disciplined reading of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, a harrowing piece forged in the cauldron of Stalin's purges. The colorful windbreakers were put on only for the encore; underneath, those kids were wearing grown-up tuxes.

Gustavo Dudamel was twenty-six at the time of those concerts. He's twenty-eight now. In the fall of 2009, he becomes one of the youngest music directors of a major orchestra in history when he succeeds EsaPekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In a time when the classical music recording industry is virtually moribund, he has an exclusive contract with the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label. Sir Simon Rattle, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called him "the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across." He has been profiled on 60 Minutes and, according to the New York Times, is "the most-talked-about young musician in the world." And thanks to the media attention, his renown has started to spread outside the normally hermetic world of classical music. Pink's, the celebrated hot dog emporium in Los Angeles, has even created the "Dudamel Dog," an honor never before given to a classical musician (it's a spicy extravaganza with guacamole, salsa and chips). …

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