Note to readers: This interview took place before conductor Gustavo Dudamel withdrew from the remaining concerts in his scheduled two-week stint with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The decision was made on his doctor’s advice because of complications from an earlier injury.
When Gustavo Dudamel made his first appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2006, he was just starting to catch the music world’s attention. The winner of the prestigious Bamberg Symphony Conducting Competition two years earlier, the 25-year-old Venezuelan came to Tanglewood bearing talent beyond his age and the imprimatur of El Sistema, an innovative youth orchestra program for poor children in his home country that, like Dudamel himself, was just beginning to make waves.
In the 12-plus years that separated that debut from his second encounter with the BSO — an April 5-6 engagement — Dudamel went from promising newcomer to the world’s most sought-after conductor and classical music’s most recognizable face. Especially in Los Angeles, where he is in his 10th season as music and artistic director of the city’s Philharmonic, he has become an icon, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a recent appearance at the Academy Awards. He even appeared on a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” a show he loves.
But when asked whether he is the same musician he was back then, he immediately agreed.
“You know, it’s very special when you see yourself growing up, and you see that you have more experience,” he said during an interview at his hotel in Boston. “But this feeling, the soul of everything you do, remains in the same place, in the same dimension.”
In fact, he continued, he remains the same musician as he was when he was a young violinist with El Sistema. “When I see a youth orchestra,” he said, “I always see myself sitting there — with my violin, playing. And I remember how happy I was to make that instrument sound good, to make [a] good interpretation with my friends.
“That child inside, you remain in that same place,” he added. “That child, you know, must be protected.”
Dressed casually in a gray hoodie, jeans, and Nike sneakers, Dudamel seemed slightly subdued — tired, perhaps, from the rehearsal of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” he had just led at Symphony Hall. But when the conversation turned to music, or to art’s power to change the world, his voice immediately took on a note of wonder that gave his words a heightened sense of significance.
This happened during a discussion of his two planned BSO programs. Dudamel’s second set of concerts were to feature two works by Venezuelan composers — the Boston-based Paul Desenne and Antonio Estévez — and a piece by Ginastera. In Dudamel’s absence, Tanglewood Festival Chorus conductor James Burton will conduct Estévez’s “Cantata Criolla,” and BSO associate conductor Ken-David Masur will lead works by Berlioz and Ravel, April 11-13.
“Look, we are traveling,” Dudamel said quietly but with excitement, “to Schumann and Stravinsky, to Ginastera and Estévez. And I think it’s beautiful to see this mix of things. And at the same time, it shows that music doesn’t have any borders. Music doesn’t have any walls. Because we swim in Schumann, and we can go also to Desenne. They are all connected.”
This theme, the essential unity of music, arose when he spoke about his achievements at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He mentioned a familiar list of undertakings — Mahler’s complete symphonies, Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, and a string of premieres commissioned for the current season (the orchestra’s centenary). But he spoke with equal satisfaction about projects with Katy Perry, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, and Venezuelan singer Oscar D’Léon.
“What I want to achieve is that people see music as one, and not separate,” he explained. “It’s not about ‘this music is this, this music is that.’ It’s about quality, it’s about connection, it’s about the soul and the spirit.”
Only when he was asked about the politics of his home country did a darker tone intrude on the conversation. Dudamel has been criticized by some of his fellow Venezuelans for his past reluctance to criticize the country’s government, on which El Sistema is reliant. When he finally did speak out against the Maduro regime, in 2017, it was regarded by some as being too little, too late. (In what was widely seen as retaliation, the government canceled two tours by the country’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which Dudamel was to have led.)
The conductor gave a slight sigh of frustration when the topic was raised. “Especially in the times we are living right now, everything is about politics,” he said. “People decide to identify you with things.” Dudamel chided his critics for focusing only on recent history. He estimated that since its origins in the mid-1970s, El Sistema had played for nine Venezuelan presidents, the implication being that it has been deeply entwined with the state from the start.
“To make an opinion that would be very personal, but as a member of something that depends on the state, you have to be always . . . careful about how to do things,” he said.
He was especially keen to defend the fundamentally neutral nature of El Sistema itself. “Sistema is above politics,” he said. “It’s a symbol of the country. Of course, people want to politicize. But what we have been living is defending what is there — our reality. It is an opportunity for children to change their life through music.”
Venezuela is now engulfed in a crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. Yet even when speaking about it, Dudamel sounded improbably hopeful. “Sadly, we are living in this terrible situation. But I’m really sure, the moment when this will change is soon. For the sake of our country, it has to.”
He came back to this topic at the end of the interview, and what he said sounded like an article of overarching faith — in Venezuela, in El Sistema, and in humanity itself.
“I believe that the richness of the country has always been placed in the oil,” he said. “No. We are rich because [of] our youth, our people. And when you see an orchestra playing, when you see a person working to be different things — a doctor, a waiter in a restaurant — I think that is the richness of our people.
“That is what will rebuild our country,” he continued. “I believe in that more than other things. Because it’s what I learned in El Sistema. I learned that we belong to all people, and not to one side or the other. And I believe in that.”