Hong Kong Arts Festival 2015

How conductor Gustavo Dudamel communicates his love of music to audiences

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel communicates his love of music to the audience and his orchestra

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 January, 2015, 10:13pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 January, 2015, 3:09pm

On a quiet Friday morning, the day after Thanksgiving, Gustavo Dudamel strolled on to the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where his orchestra was already warming up. Carrying a stack of music books, and wearing a brown T-shirt and jeans, he uttered a brief good morning to the musicians and launched straight into rehearsals.

Over the next two-and-a-half hours, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's famed music director bantered and laughed with his colleagues, and wielded the baton like it had life of its own - crouching low, stretching high, and flexing and thrusting as if he were a dancer, as if the music lived inside him.

"I hosted a concert series when he was a guest conductor here, years ago, and I was so, so excited about him I almost wanted to say to the audience, 'You are in for a treat'," says Bing Wang, who is the associate concertmaster of the LA Phil. "But I held back because I didn't want to be inappropriate."

Wang's reaction remains a typical one. Dudamel, 33, has a mystique that eludes most conductors, even the seasoned ones, and draws audiences the world over as much as the repertoire. He took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September 2009, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen, and has had his contract renewed till the end of the 2018-2019 season - the 100th anniversary of the Philharmonic.

Under his tenure, the LA Phil has been reinvigorated and re-energised. Their relationship is, he says, "a happy marriage".

Hong Kong audiences will have their first opportunity to see Dudamel when he makes his Asian debut with the LA Phil as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March. The orchestra will play two consecutive nights at the Cultural Centre.

It will perform signature pieces from the Philharmonic's repertoire: Mahler's Symphony No 6 (on March 19), and John Adams' City Noir and Dvorak's Symphony No 9 (on March 20).

"It's a wonderful repertoire to take on tour," says Dudamel. "It's a symbol of my journey with the LA Phil, and a powerful programme that shows all the aspects of our time together."

Shortly after his extensive rehearsal that morning, which was in preparation for that evening's concert - Max Reger's Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Haydn's Cello Concerto in C with acclaimed young cellist Gautier Capuçon, and Schubert's Symphony No 6 - Dudamel was seated in his suite of offices at the Concert Hall.

He was relaxed and affable, excited to talk about the Asian tour, in which the Philharmonic goes on to Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo. He speaks in heavily accented, but fluent English, and his love for music is evident at every turn.

"Young people see classical music like it's old, like it's their grandparents' music, or music for dead people," he says. "But classical music is 200 years old and still alive. When you bring a young person to a concert, he falls in love with what is happening on the stage. It is a magical and powerful thing."

The Venezuelan-born Dudamel has been privy to the magic and power of music since he was a baby. His father was a professional trombone player, his mother a voice teacher and a choral singer. "Music has been around my house since I was born. The passion, the natural feeling for music: I think you have to be born with it."

Dudamel likes to quote the works of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote of the "duende" - interpreted by Dudamel as a fairy of sorts who resides within artists.

"It is something that goes beyond talent and knowledge," he explains. "It's kind of a power that an artist has to convince you, a way they have to connect with an audience. It's something natural, and it's impossible to learn that."

Dudamel, arguably, has that "duende". Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the LA Phil, recognised it immediately when she saw Dudamel perform as a guest conductor at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005.

"I knew that this was the kind of talent that comes along once in 100 years," she recalls. "I watched him when he met the orchestra, and it was like spontaneous combustion. They fell in love with him. He has this remarkable sense of communication; his immersion in music, his communication of that to audiences, and to the orchestra as well - it's profound. He's all about the music."

It's what Dudamel does with the music that has pushed him to the top of his field. His response to a particular piece is visceral, and as a result, his handling of it is instinctual, his interpretations startlingly unique. He takes the orchestra on a journey, and as the players move through a piece, the audience moves with them.

"All the music we play that is not a premiere has been played hundreds of times," he says. "That is the challenge."

"I'm not interested in changing everything, but keeping the tradition of a piece and bring something special to it. It's like reading a book. When I go back and read the same book again, I see things I never saw before. That makes it more special. It's the same with a musical score. I'll say, 'Let's bring this to it.' It's like cooking. You add another ingredient and it becomes different."

Wang, the assistant concertmaster, says she was originally struck by the way Dudamel threw so much of his body into conducting. "I remember his English was limited back then," she says of their first rehearsals. "He didn't say very much, but with someone like that you don't need much explanation, as he does everything through his body. He explains to the orchestra what he wants to achieve by using gestures."

His communication skills extend to the audience: "He's one of those classical music geniuses who is able to communicate music to the general public," Wang adds.

"Because of him, people don't need to understand music. He's just so incredible to watch - his dynamism, his charisma, his power. I feel like we in the orchestra are like instruments, and that he is working through us to show what he believes the music to be," she says.

Cultivating a love of music in young people is a big part of Dudamel's life, in part because of El Sistema in Venezuela, a programme that makes musical education and instruments available to all children, free of charge. It provided the inspiration for YOLA - Youth Orchestra Los Angeles - which Dudamel also steers.

Dudamel says it's important to stop people thinking of the performing arts as elitist. "We have been living in a world where art is for a minority," Dudamel says. "But music as a concept, is a powerful element for social change. It's something real. A little boy or girl, especially from a disadvantaged community, goes to [play in] the orchestra, and it changes the life of a family and a community.

"Music has to be a human right, like health, or food. In the past, to be a complete human being you had to be involved in singing, or writing poems, or playing an instrument. This is a concept we have to bring back to the world. When you are in music, you create harmony. I like to think of how beautiful the world can be if we all interact as an orchestra."

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, March 19 and 20, 8pm. Cultural Centre Concert Hall, HK$780-HK$1,680. Inquiries: 2824 2430



Opera, drama, and dance among Hong Kong Arts Festival highlights

Along with Gustavo Dudamel's Hong Kong debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the month-long Hong Kong Arts Festival (February 27-March 29) boasts a programme of 40 international productions, ranging from opera to music, theatre and dance. Here are some of the highlights.

On March 3, Les Arts Florissants will perform at City Hall under the baton of William Christie. The harpsichordist and founder of In an Italian Garden, a French vocal and instrumental ensemble, will celebrate his passion for Italian lyric works from the 16th to 18th centuries with a two-part performance.

The players from Christie's masterclass academy Le Jardin des Voix will explore various themes through excerpts from the operas of Stradella, Vivaldi and Handel.

The Gate Theatre will bring to life Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy in an adaptation (March 5-15) of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice at the Academy for Performing Arts' Lyric Theatre.

Veteran actress Lisa Dwan will showcase her surreal take on a trio of Samuel Beckett monologues: Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby. Directed by Walter Asmus, a longtime collaborator of the late Irish playwright, this Royal Court Theatre show (February 25-28, March 1) promises to be concise yet thought-provoking.

Fight Night (February 26-28, March 1), an immersive reality theatre show by Belgium's Ontroerend Goed and Australia's The Border Project, may prove timely for Hong Kong. Presented in a game show format, it prompts the audience to reflect on democracy, elections, and political manipulation.

For some adrenaline-pumped entertainment, there's Gala Flamenca (February 26-28, March 1), directed by Ángel Rojas of Nuevo Ballet Español and performed by Antonio Canales, Carlos Rodríguez, Jesús Carmona and Karime Amaya. It's an all-star show featuring traditional and modern flamenco. The company is also giving two master classes on February 28.

Vanessa Yung