Once More With Gustavo

The young conductor of the Simón Bolívar orchestra is brilliantly reinvigorating Mahler

Norman Lebrecht

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.

I had seen the Simón Bolívar Orchestra before, but never playing Mahler. My first surprise was that they got past the opening page. The Third Symphony begins with a sour blast of ironic brass, fiendishly difficult to bring off without sounding banal or bucolic. The Fifth opens with a trumpet call, faintly mocking the famous triplet-and-minim of Beethoven’s Fifth and totally exposed. The best players in Vienna have been known to crack with stage fright. The Venezuelans smiled and breezed it.

None of the players was over 28 or had ever worn concert dress before. Most had been plucked as children from barrios, saved from a short, brutish life of drugs and guns by the redemptive force of Antonio Abreu’s sistema, a scheme that offers after-school music lessons as a route to self-worth. 

Its effectiveness has been statistically validated, in social terms at least. One in four Venezuelan students drops out of school before reaching 16. In el sistema, the rate falls to 6.9 per cent. Gangs, who haunt the school gates, respect a sistema uniform. A recent study by Tricia Tunstall, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music (Norton, £17.99), estimates that 370,000 children participate in Abreu’s nucleos, playing classical music for several hours every day.

Dudamel studied with Abreu from the age of 12, conducting Mahler at 16. I observed him for a week and noted a significant distinction. Where most conductors give expressive gesture and leadership to an orchestra, Dudamel requires live feedback. He gives and, at the same time, receives in return looks of wonderment and encouragement. With the Venezuelans, whom he has known all his life, the result is an ever-rising layering of challenge as each side inspires the other to believe and do better.

He conducted the Third Symphony with a heavy head cold and had to retreat after the first movement to decongest. The tension was unbroken by his absence, so secure was the structure. The Fifth Symphony, two nights later was vividly innovative in tempo relations, allowing the waltzes a dash of salsa and the marches a threat of junta violence. These musicians felt what they played.

With the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the transaction between conductor and orchestra was heightened by professional rank. World-class players gave Dudamel the same emotional response as his compadres and, over cocktails at the bar, gushed about him like teenaged groupies. The added value, for Dudamel, was that with LAPO he could leap without a parachute.

While rehearsing the Sixth, he called me in for a chat about the order of the inner movements — Mahler published them as Scherzo-Andante but performed them in reverse — and whether there should be two or three hammer blows in the finale. Again, Mahler was in two minds. “Make it work,” he told future interpreters.

“Which is it?” said Gustavo.

“Do as Mahler would have done,” I advised. “Go with the feeling.”

So he did. In rehearsal he tried the inner movements in both orders, settling for Andante-Scherzo but still prepared to change his mind. As for the hammer blows, he devised a secret signal to tell the percussionist which it was going to be, two or three, delaying until the last possible moment. 

I have never known a conductor jeopardise a whole cycle on a late whim. But it is faultlessly authentic, exactly what Mahler would have done. By upping the ante on the hammer blows and deciding in the end on two, Dudamel changed the character of the Sixth Symphony finale from unrelieved doom to a glimmer of hope. Hundreds in the audience stayed on afterwards for half an hour to discuss with me the remarkable transformations they had just heard.

“In Mahler,” Dudamel said as we parted, “you see complete transcendence — how a man’s life is transformed from the First Symphony to the Tenth. Everything undergoes metamorphosis.” I flew home to London. He went on to Caracas, to deliver an Eighth symphony with 1,400 performers, the largest yet. There was a historic dimension to this project, much of which will be released on video. It will not silence endemic mutterers, but I saw enough in a week to support the assessment five years ago of a veteran US concertmaster, a hard-hat who has chewed out more young conductors than I have written 1,000-word columns. “Don’t bracket Dudamel with the rest, Norman,” he warned. “One like this comes once in a lifetime.”

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