The Dudamel Phenomenon

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 27, 2007

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Clad in a bright blue, yellow, and red warm-up jacket which matches all of the members of the double-sized orchestra, an inordinately young conductor steps to the podium to “Beatle-esque” applause. Not only is the conductor excited, but he also has the whole ensemble nearly jump out of their seats and raise their instruments over their heads to “work the crowd.”

His performances with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra have elicited astonishing response from audiences worldwide. The conductor, with his long hair and extraordinary charisma, may be the brightest light on the horizon for classical music. His name is Gustavo Dudamel and, at 26 years old, he has recently been signed to a contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic beginning with their 2009 season. This makes him one of the youngest conductors since Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta to take the helm of a major orchestra. Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, was quoted in the New York Times hailing Dudamel, as “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.”

“Dudamel does not appear to be leading the orchestra or even interacting with it. He is the orchestra, or is at least at one with it . . . And there was fun, fun, fun . . . an exceptional fresh talent with room to grow . . . Greatness like this doesn’t come around often.” (Los Angeles Times, 06 January 2007). Gustavo Dudamel is a product of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, a relatively poor country, but one that has an enrollment of over 250,000 students in this program. Founded by visionary musician and organizer Jose Antonio Abreu, the concept of this system of youth orchestras embraces students from ages 2 to 18 almost as soon as they begin playing their instruments. They spend hours rehearsing daily, and quickly learn the teamwork, respect, and discipline involved being part of an orchestra. The benefits of this approach are multi-fold and these students bring this positive attitude with them into many other aspects of their lives.

Another exciting aspect of Dudamel being brought to the USA is that the Los Angeles Philharmonic will be initiating a plan to launch a youth orchestra system based upon the Venezuelan example. This program will get its start in the Los Angeles area where it has the potential to reach many disadvantaged youth. According to the New York Times, “The ultimate goal is to provide a musical instrument and a place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles County who wants one.” Should the L.A. initiative succeed in helping these youths overcome their impoverished backgrounds, then the possibilities for extending it are virtually endless.

With the Dudamel phenomenon, the future of classical music becomes inordinately brighter including the opportunity to entice more young people into the concert hall, as well as into the world of orchestral performances. Although the vast majority of children who enter youth orchestra programs won’t become professional musicians, there is a greater likelihood that they will become dedicated, disciplined students who have a life-long appreciation for classical music.

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