Gustavo Dudamel: Unique talent (Jon Crwys-Williams)
At the end of a week's lectureship at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, I dropped by Gustavo Dudamel's green room to say goodbye. The young maestro, 31 that week, was changing from jeans into tails for a Sunday afternoon concert of Mahler's Sixth Symphony.
That morning, he had conducted a three-hour rehearsal of Mahler's Ninth. That evening he was down to work with choirs on the gigantic Symphony of a Thousand. He had set himself a Herculean workload, worthy of the workaholic Mahler himself.
The Mahler Project, blazoned on posters across the city of angels, was an act of total immersion. It brought together the Simón Bolívar orchestra of Venezuela, where Dudamel grew up, with the seriously grown-up Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it was performed in two countries whose governments cannot exchange a polite word.
The risk level was higher than any I have ever known in a Mahler cycle and there cannot have been a player or singer among hundreds who was not aware of the stakes. And then the conductor threw the dice and gambled the lot on an impulse.
Much has been written about Gustavo Dudamel as the saviour of classical music, most of it nonsense. Much has also been muttered out of the sides of musical mouths that the kid ain't as good as he's Caracased up to be and that his el sistema training method is just another wacko cult with no viable application to other societies.
Such gripes simmer wherever musicians gather and the only way to test the contrary views was to sample the phenomenon for myself in the music that I know best. So when an invitation arrived from Los Angeles to lecture on the topic of "Why Mahler?" as part of the Dudamel cycle, it was impossible to resist.