Venezuela-born maestro Gustavo Dudamel at home with all kinds of music from Beyonce to Brahms

Gustavo Dudamel.
Gustavo Dudamel.PHOTO: ADAM LATHAM

Venezuela-born conductor Gustavo Dudamel is bent on making classical music mainstream

One might scoff at a 36-year-old conductor's ambition to make classical music reach the 99 per cent in the world who do not listen to it. Yet Gustavo Dudamel is on his way to doing exactly that.

He had his student orchestra, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, share the stage with British band Coldplay and American R&B superstar Beyonce in one of the United States' most-watched pop culture events, last year's Super Bowl.

He conducted the opening and end titles of the 2015 Star Wars movie The Force Awakens - at composer John Williams' request - and took it as seriously as the Brahms Symphony No. 4 which won him and the Los Angeles Philharmonic a 2012 Grammy Award for best orchestral performance.

His playlists on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music include everything. "And I really mean everything," the Venezuela-born conductor writes in an e-mail ahead of his debut here this week with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. "From Shakira to Madonna (I adore them), Coldplay to Led Zeppelin, Berlin Phil to LA Phil, I'm at home with all forms of music."

Hoping to make others equally at ease with different sounds, Dudamel coached the lead actor in Mozart In The Jungle, the top-rated, Golden-Globe-winning Web series about a fictional symphony orchestra, produced by Amazon Prime.

(Classical music) was only ever intended in history for the elite and that is something I desperately want to change.

CONDUCTOR GUSTAVO DUDAMEL

  • BOOK IT/ SSO GALA: GUSTAVO DUDAMEL & RENAUD CAPUCON

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Thursday and Friday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $30to $168 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

"(Classical music) was only ever intended in history for the elite and that is something I desperately want to change," he says. "It is a gift which all of mankind deserves to hold and to own."

His concerts in Singapore on Thursday and Friday feature Antonin Dvorak's historic Symphony No. 9, a piece which went off-planet in 1969 with American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon.

Days ago, Dudamel also made history as the youngest conductor to lead the acclaimed Vienna Philharmonic in its annual New Year's Concert, broadcast to 90 countries. British actress Julie Andrews was the host.

This would be the pinnacle of some careers. For Dudamel, it is all in a day's work.

This year, he tours Europe with the Berlin Philharmonic. He remains music and artistic director of the acclaimed LA Philharmonic. He also opens Hamburg's new Elbphilharmonie concert hall with the youth of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, a Venezuelan ensemble which he first led at age 15.

His schedule is so full that he is known for not being anywhere earlier than he needs to be.

"I am known in the business for arriving at the very last minute. Of course, it makes everyone else nervous backstage, but I am almost always there right on the button," he says.

The son of a trombonist and a singing teacher, Dudamel grew up in the high-risk Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, where crime and drugs were rampant. What saved him and other lucky students was El Sistema, a pioneering music education programme where professional musicians work with youth. It steered a young Dudamel away from unsavoury interests.

He tells The Straits Times: "Art is the most important part of our education...You give a child the ability to appreciate music, art and beauty and that is a gift that child will carry with him through his entire life."

He first took the baton at age 12 during a rehearsal in Barquisimeto when the conductor was sick. Five months later, he was assistant conductor. In 2002, British conductor Simon Rattle invited him to study with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Awards and opportunities came thick and fast after that, but Dudamel never forgot his start with El Sistema. He is now music director of that programme and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. During his term at the LA Philharmonic, he started the Youth Orchestra LA, where the orchestra and its partners provide free instruments, music training and academic support for underprivileged youth.

"We have to start with the young people, as they are our future," says Dudamel, who has a son with his former wife, dancer Eloisa Maturen. "Then we must, step by step, make classical music accessible to everyone.

"What I believe is that access to music and art is essential and it cannot remain the exclusive domain of those who have the financial resources to pay for the lessons and the learning. I will always remain committed to the power of music to unite, inspire and heal."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'From Star Wars to Super Bowl'. Print Edition | Subscribe