When the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel takes his perch in front of an orchestra, his expression is often focused and ferociously intense. Once the music begins, his nimble gestures set the tempo, and they get faster and more passionate with the blast of each crescendo. But amid the fervor, Dudamel often breaks into a smile – something the Los Angeles Times noted in a recent performance and described as a subtle clue that he “wants to be [there], conducting… for the sake of togetherness.”
For the last 10 years, Dudamel has brought this mix of liveliness, exuberance, and palpable glee to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he is the musical director. His ebullient approach and ascent through the ranks of classical music has not only been the subject of countless profiles, news segments, an inclusion in the 2009 Time 100, and a documentary; it partially inspired the character of Rodrigo – played by Gael García Bernal – on the Emmy-winning show Mozart in the Jungle. Bernal trained with Dudamel while preparing for the role, and the youthful vigor and unbridled creativity he injects into Rodrigo is a reflection of what a fixture Dudamel’s energy has made him in the music world.
“Every day, I feel more and more Latino, I feel more Venezuelan and I feel more Latin American.”
This weekend, Dudamel celebrates his tenure with the L.A. Philharmonic, an anniversary that coincides with the centennial of the award-winning orchestra. To commemorate both occasions, a lengthy and diverse line-up of performances have been scheduled at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl amphitheater throughout the month of July. Each performance is meant to underscore the imagination of the L.A. Philharmonic under Dudamel, and one of the most exciting highlights includes a collaborative performance with Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade. Lafourcade and Dudamel have a professional history together: They previously joined forces in 2017 for a music festival honoring the culture and traditions of Mexico City, and their upcoming program on Sunday night will be a repertoire that encompasses a wide variety of Latin American songs.
“I admire her art so much,” he said of Lafourcade in a recent interview with Remezcla. “I feel like it’s a privilege to work with her – her style, her passion, and her love for what she does is really unique, and it makes her one of the most important representatives of our culture.”
But Dudamel’s partnership with Lafourcade is also a nod to his own relationship with Latin America’s sonic roots. Dudamel got his start as a violinist in Barquisimeto, a city in Venezuela’s state of Lara, and moved into conducting in 1995. After serving as an assistant to the internationally renowned conductor Simon Rattle, Dudamel’s reputation spread across Europe and won him opportunities as the principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in 2007 to 2008. He made his debut at the L.A. Philharmonic in 2009 when he was just 28. The New York Times called him a “rising star” and pointed out that his first season included a recognition of Latin American composers from Mexico and Venezuela.
And working with Lafourcade isn’t the first time Dudamel has found a way to weave contemporary artists from Latin America into his classical repertoire. Finding ways to pay homage to his heritage in innovative ways that include the musicians of today is something that Dudamel calls “fundamental.”
“All music has an objective and a goal of offering beauty to the world. It’s a universal language, no matter the style.”
“It forms a part of my identity, of our identity as Latinos, and it’s especially important in a city like Los Angeles, that is filled with people from all parts of Latin America, to represent where we come from. Every day, I feel more and more Latino, I feel more Venezuelan and I feel more Latin American. When I can team up with artists like Natalia, like Café Tacuba, like Rubén Blades, like Oscar D’León, like Juan Luis Guerra, it’s something essential,” he said. “This is only the beginning of the many things we’re going to keep doing and to expand and to show who we are. This is essential for me.”
Apart from matters of representation, Dudamel sees his role as a luminary in the elite and often closed-off world of classical music as an opportunity to open doors for underserved communities. As a child, he forged his musical path through El Sistema, a publicly financed education program for kids in Venezuela (the program has inspired similar organizations throughout the globe, but has faced controversy in recent years). Dudamel still sees music and culture as what he calls a “vehicle for change and transformation in society.” He evokes the thinking of Spanish writer and thinker Miguel de Unamuno, who believed that art was a pathway toward liberation. The philosophy powers Dudamel’s own outreach efforts today, including the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation, which he created in 2012 to promote access to music.
Dudamel has also made it a goal to ensure that the audiences who enter orchestral halls throughout the globe include new generations – something that explains his interest in collaborating with pop artists and shattering the confines across classical and contemporary genres of music.
“All music has an objective and a goal of offering beauty to the world. It’s a universal language, no matter the style. For me, it’s critical to see it as one entity and not as separate archipelagos floating around,” he explained. “When you see a program like the one were doing with Natalia, were introducing a new take on interpreting classic styles. It’s critical for me to find ways to break down the barriers and make it so that lines don’t exist.”
Dudamel has a busy schedule after the calendar at the Hollywood Bowl. The Hollywood Reporter shared in May that he had been tapped by Steven Spielberg to compose the score for the director’s upcoming remake of West Side Story, a project that seems to encompass both Dudamel’s skill for interpreting classics and introducing new generations to venerated traditions of musical history. However, even as his career reaches new peaks, and as he traverses new territory, he insists that the impulses that first lured him toward music remain unchanged.
“If you want to know the truth, I’m the same kid from Barquisimeto, with the same thoughts and worries and dreams of making music with his colleagues and enjoying what he does,” he says. “Everything else is a lucky addition that I thank life for daily.”
Stream the performance here on Sunday night: