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Gustavo DudamelI'm not a young conductor anymore

Published in September 2013Time to read: 5min 42s

Rolex Testimonee Gustavo Dudamel has the world at his feet. The charismatic Venezuelan conductor has shaken the foundations of classical music with his open mind and bold, new interpretations of old classics.

by Jesús Ruiz Mantilla

Just over 10 years ago, a talented young conductor began making his mark throughout the world. The young man came out of Venezuela’s extraordinary “Sistema” network of orchestras, which was created around 40 years ago by the visionary José Antonio Abreu, who was to have a profound impact on classical music. With a smile hidden in a shock of curly hair and a contagious energy and liveliness, the young conductor won over crowds – crowds of young people. He was Gustavo Dudamel, who embodied hope for the world of classical music, which had been declining in popularity. Now, he is Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela – the most prestigious in the Abreu system and hailed by critics as one of the five best orchestras in the world. He is also Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and a regular guest conductor for the world’s finest musical ensembles and institutions, from the Berlin and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras to La Scala and the Concertgebouw. Gustavo Dudamel, a Rolex Testimonee since 2008, no longer considers himself a young conductor and has matured into an original thinker.

You have quickly gone from being a promising musical prodigy to an accomplished conductor. How do you feel now that you are living your dreams?

I don’t see myself as a young conductor anymore. You find young conductors such as 18-year-old Jesús Parra who has just made his debut in Salzburg under Simon Rattle, as well as Diego Matheuz and Christian Vásquez coming from the same system as me. There’s an explosion of new conductors, and it’s to be expected. The greats of past and present were once young musicians and, over time, the ranks of those wanting to devote themselves to music are growing younger and younger, possibly because it’s a world that has become more accessible. I know I still have a long way to go and I’m aware of being one of the privileged few with the tools at my disposal to continue developing with the orchestras I conduct. My degree of maturity today corresponds with the years that have passed and the developments in my career that have brought me this far. However, the most interesting part of it all is that you steadily raise the bar in terms of what you expect from yourself.

Can you explain why?

You tend to worry a lot when you are young, and perhaps the ideas and concerns you feel during this period of your life stem more from instinct than experience. They are perhaps more natural and more impetuous, and then as time goes on, you notice that the question becomes less about the how and more about the why. That’s where I stand today, the “how” is becoming less of an issue, as I ask myself more and more about the “why”.

Gustavo Dudamel fervently believes that classical music has been democratized and no longer belongs to particular places or cultures.

Can you give some examples?

Why should a given piece be seen from a particular angle? Why ask this or that from the orchestra – be it a certain style or a particular sound?

The career of a young conductor of your generation is more exposed than ever and has a high media profile, including social networks – all of which becomes very demanding. Few are able to survive in this jungle, yet you have done so and have amply fulfilled the expectations generated around you. Do you feel that you receive sufficient recognition for these achievements?

I feel fine where I am. I don’t think I have anything to prove and I don’t put pressure on myself to build something in particular in terms of my career. What interests me is my development as an artist. I used to feel more of a desire to prove things, and especially to prove I had talent – all of which is part of the folly of youth – even though everything evolved quite naturally for me and I didn’t feel pressured. I am more comfortable today and my curiosity goes way deeper than in the past. I love delving into music, exploring its physical, philosophical and, of course, artistic dimensions.

Which of these do you feel are most important?

All of them, taken as a whole. Music cannot be considered merely as a sound, a harmony, a rhythm or a colour. It must also be viewed through the prism of the thought that gave rise to such notes. The creation of some masterpieces required deep reflection – not necessarily in an orderly way, but in a natural and grounded manner. The orchestra must also be able to sense these thought patterns. It is not enough to try to explain them in words; you have to do it through gestures too. It is all about this complex relationship between your intellect, your knowledge, your intuition and your feelings.

I am surprised that you didn’t feel the pressure. On the one hand, that seems like a healthy approach, but maybe also somewhat flippant. You were the emblematic figure of José Antonio Abreu’s Venezuelan orchestra, which is held up as an example around the world. Didn’t a responsibility like this weigh heavy on your shoulders?

No, never, I can assure you. I never feel nervous before a concert – if I did it would be a sign of insecurity. On the other hand, I am highly impatient and my adrenalin shoots up. I do indeed feel a sense of responsibility, which is different from pressure – a responsibility to develop personally and artistically, the terms I prefer to use more than “professionally”.

Why don’t you like the term “professionally”?

It’s too limited. What bothers me is when it is used by young people who, on joining an orchestra, demand professional treatment. We are artists. We create and recreate. Recreating the music of the great geniuses calls for artists, not professionals. That’s why I have never felt pressured.

Could you share with us the founding principles of El Sistema?

The most important thing is group practice. Studying alone is also important, but teamwork plays an essential role. This experience in the orchestra, the act of listening to others, of producing such or such a sound, was very important to us. We have all played in an orchestra, and the aspiration to succeed stems from this shared practice backed by extensive musical training. My studies at Barquisimeto [Venezuela] laid the foundations for all the rest: they instilled in me a sense of harmony and aesthetics, a taste for history and… the pleasure of performing together. This is also why I find it easy to connect with orchestras.

With this training behind you, you left Venezuela and met with great success in the United States, where you were appointed Music Director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. You have caused ripples throughout Europe, the home of a grand musical tradition; you have brought a decidedly fresh approach to music. Should one rationalize the importance of this tradition? Is everything in fact more organic than one might think?

Absolutely. Certain terms, such as the very word “classical”, have put most people off music. While it is true that at one time this music was reserved for the elite and performed in courts under the patronage of monarchs and the aristocracy, that’s no longer the case. Today, it belongs to everyone. Art is part and parcel of human development. It is a way of gaining access to a beauty that cannot be seen, but rather sensed. This is why music encompasses all the other arts, because it is felt and experienced.

For Gustavo Dudamel, creating masterpieces with an orchestra requires expression of the complex relationship between intellect, knowledge, intuition and feelings.

How does one overcome the barrier?

Think of the vintage charm of a collector’s car, of the way that this same car has adapted over the ages. That is how we should understand music. Not only has composition evolved, but so too have sounds, concepts and the way they are transmitted. We should take advantage of the fresh impetus that younger generations, with their new vision, are imparting to orchestras; music is a world that belongs to each and every one of us.

This doesn’t necessarily mean dealing with repertoires in bits and pieces. For example, you, yourself, offer your audience complete cycles of Mahler symphonies. The audience, albeit amateur, always appreciates the best works. Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive.

Purists create a distance between popular classical music and the new generations. They believe that this music is the preserve of a handful of privileged people and that to maintain its purity, it needs to remain boxed in under the control of certain circles. It is utter nonsense to think like that in this day and age.

Some critics believe that nobody did more harm to Wagner than Wagnerians themselves with their sectarian mind-sets.

Yes, indeed, and such approaches are all too prevalent. It’s really strange. Today, there’s one thing in particular that people react fiercely to. So many readily criticize and attack a young conductor solely because of his age. It’s the same as thinking that somebody who is good-looking can’t be intelligent. These are clichés with no substance whatsoever. Purists are very inclined to attitudes like these. With such prejudices, some critics severely hamper the development that music should be enjoying.

Do similar prejudices arise when music in the grand European tradition is being safeguarded and promoted by Venezuelan conductors or brilliant Chinese pianists such as Lang Lang?

The critics’ blinkered outlook is due to their always having owned this music and always understanding it in exactly the same way. However, things are changing and music no longer belongs to a particular place or culture. Instead, it is becoming global and truly universal. That is what we are trying to demonstrate and this is the most important thing – aside from the fact that we come from places where access to music has been democratized. The whole point is not about creating musicians, but about giving human beings the means to achieve self-development and self-fulfilment.

My curiosity goes way deeper than in the past.Gustavo Dudamel

Is that what the Abreu system aspires to?

Its ambition is to achieve something good that is geared away from individualism. I don’t know anyone more ambitious than José Antonio Abreu, but this ambition is all directed towards collective progress – a common purpose that teaches children and young people to make the most of their time. He enables them to learn something that is worthwhile, something filled with emotion, directed towards a quest for beauty. Art is the most important part of our education, and gives us a physical and temporal space in which to create beauty. Time is our greatest asset and we must use it to fine-tune our innate sensitivity and to evolve into better human beings.


El Sistema, created in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, has come to epitomize the benchmark for musical education worldwide. Many other countries would like to adopt this form of musical education for young people (along with the funding model), although the project actually stems from – and is still today – a social initiative designed to fight poverty and delinquency. It currently consists of 125 youth orchestras around the country, translating into more than one in each city, just as its pioneer had dreamed. That’s in addition to the 31 symphony orchestras, with musicians from the El Sistema programme, including the jewel in the crown of the entire system: the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

Around 400,000 children and young people in Venezuela are currently benefiting from classes under El Sistema, which is funded by government grants and private contributions from all over the world. It is highly regarded by major musical figures such as Simon Rattle, who views the programme as the most significant teaching endeavour he has ever known; and it regularly collaborates with prestigious, world-renowned musicians such as Plácido Domingo and Rattle himself. It is also a recognized school for performers and conductors trained by Abreu, including Gustavo Dudamel, current Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela; Diego Matheuz, current Principal Conductor at La Fenice opera house in Venice; and Christian Vásquez.

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