Postcard from London: Discover Dudamel

Yesterday was a moment several months in the making for the 10 traveling musicians from YOLA (Youth Orchestra LA). It’s why they wrote two essays, gave an interview, and played an audition just for the opportunity to come on this trip to London. Yesterday was the rehearsal and performance of the Discover Dudamel orchestra at the Barbican Centre, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel himself.

Dudamel bounded on stage, a bundle of energy even though he had just come from an interview that went late and had barely had time to grab a snack for lunch. He surveyed the large group of mostly high-school age kids, paused to count the number players in the flute section, “How many?” He asked. “Six flutes? I love this: Venezuelan-style,” referring to the giant orchestras of several hundred he has conducted countless times with El Sistema.

“Okay, let’s play,” Dudamel said quickly, and raised his arms for the downbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture. But there was an impish look in his eye. He turned to the concertmaster and asked, “Romeo and Juliet?” She nodded. “Prokofiev, right?” Dudamel said. “No, Berlioz?” Giggling from the orchestra. “Oh…I remember,” Dudamel said, grinning. “Tchaikovsky.”


Montagues and Capulets. Swordfights. Love. Poison. Death. A damn fine performance by this ensemble which had just met for the first time the day before. Then it was time to work. Dudamel began by confessing to the orchestra. “I am crazy about every piece I conduct–sometimes too crazy.” He explained that especially in music like this, which depicts the drama of Shakespeare, the orchestra has to communicate every nuance of the story. “We have to feel everything,” Dudamel told them. “It’s not just notes. You have to play the content inside every note.”

I love watching Gustavo Dudamel rehearse. First of all, I simply have to marvel at how and where the man gets his energy. I was told earlier this week that he sleeps in bursts: he’ll go days without sleeping more than an hour or two at night (this is when he’s working hard) and then when he has some down time, he’ll sometimes sleep for days at a time.

But beyond the energy, it’s Dudamel’s way of communicating to the orchestra exactly what he wants from them that is so interesting to watch. He relies a lot on analagies. He has told me he prefers to describe a particular sound using non-musical terms because that allows the orchestra to create a clearer image of that sound when they’re playing.

So, Dudamel invoked Star Wars when talking about the swordfighting scenes. For the love theme, he said, “You are kissing the moon!” At one point, he didn’t like the way the violas were beginning a phrase. He told them, “This is the moment where Romeo is touching Juliet’s cheek for the first time. You caress this note,” he said. “Not like this,” and he slapped himself in the face, which caused just about everyone in the orchestra to about fall out of their chairs laughing.

This rehearsal and performance at the Barbican Centre was the culmination of the two-and-a-half day symposium “Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century.” The YOLA musicians had tea with Gustavo afterwards.

Then, as he dashed off to rehearse John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” with the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale, the young musicians went out for a pizza party at Covent Garden. They even had time for a bit of impromptu drumming with one of the instructors of the Barbican’s Drum Works program, which certainly would make Steve Reich proud.

Tonight, the LA Phil gives the world premiere of Adams’ “Gospel.” The YOLA kids spent some time with a group of El Sistema London kids today, before heading out to do some sightseeing. It’s back to the USA for them tomorrow morning. The LA Phil has one more concert here in London tomorrow night (Firebird, La Mer) before taking the Chunnel to Paris…on to Lucerne…New York…and home in a couple weeks.

By the way, ever wonder how a group of kids navigates the intricacies of Tube for the first time? Hint: follow the orange umbrella.

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