Gustavo Dudamel is the artistic director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, known for his wild curly hair and his passionate conducting style. We caught up with Dudamel to talk about his youth orchestra's first-ever statewide tour, which runs Oct. 23-30, with stops in Southern California, the Central Valley and the Bay Area.
Welcome to the show, Maestro. Is that what to call you?
Yes, but I prefer that you call me Gustavo.
You founded the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s a music education program that provides instruments and training for about 800 kids from underserved communities in Los Angeles. Tell me about the kids in YOLA.
It’s inspired by El Sistema, a program that we have in Venezuela. I’m a result of this beautiful, beautiful musical, artistic social program. For 10 years, [YOLA has] developed many things, especially the personality of these children, their belief in life. This is the beautiful thing that music gives to them. We are very happy we are doing our first tour, after 10 years. It’s a good way to celebrate.
You still direct an orchestra in Venezuela, although you’ve shied away from weighing in on the current political crisis there. Until recently when you made some comments at a White House ceremony. Tell us what you said.
Normally, in times of crisis, the first thing people cut is art, music, cultural things for children. People don’t understand that art is a very important element of human beings. It’s beauty, it’s creativity. Of course, we are living in very difficult times in the world. In my country, it’s a very difficult economic and political time. But we have to keep working, and I think El Sistema is a symbol of this hope of the country. And I’m sure things will get better, but we have to keep playing, in our case, with our instruments, building our country, building a better world.
Your comments generated a lot of criticism on Twitter and elsewhere from people who thought you were being too insensitive to the fact that many people in Venezuela are having trouble getting food and meeting basic needs.
Absolutely. You know, I have family living there. They are suffering the same things. But the thing is, you have to keep working. I’m a person that works. I don’t like to talk. I prefer to work and build things. I’m not a politician, my dear, I’m a musician, I’m an artist. Of course, I’m a citizen. But what I can do is spread the message of music and art as a very important element of humanity. This is the thing that I do. I’m with my country, with all the people that are suffering. But what I can say is that we will get out of this difficult moment. But keep working and keep dreaming, because nobody can kill our dreams.
Part of your dream here in California is to make classical music more accessible. How do you do that?
We are an orchestra that has two great venues, Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. At the Bowl, we can have 18,000 people every night. So it’s beautiful, the amount of people that have access to classical music. Tickets are less expensive, some of them only a dollar. And with all the programs we have here for young people, for children, for new music, I think our doors are really open to new audiences.
You recently got to conduct part of John Williams' soundtrack for the latest "Star Wars" movie, "The Force Awakens." What was that like?
Well, amazing. Imagine, knowing the film and this music since I was a child. By the way, my son is a big admirer of "Star Wars," so I took him to the session. It was amazing. I’m so thankful and grateful to have John Williams as a friend. When he called me, I was like, ‘Are you sure John, you are not joking?’ He said, ‘No, I would love to give a surprise to the orchestra.' It was a great experience. I’d love to repeat it again someday.
You mentioned your 5-year-old son, Martin. You travel around the world, you’ve got this grueling schedule. How do you juggle it all and make time for him?
I open time. I try to be a good father. When I’m here in Los Angeles, I take him every morning to school. He comes on tour with me sometimes. He goes to Venezuela with his mom, with me, we have all the family there. It’s not the amount of time you spend with them. It’s the quality of the time you give to your children.
I’ve got to ask you about "Mozart in the Jungle," the Netflix show about a young Latin American conductor that comes to the U.S. It's loosely based on your story, although the character in that show has a hot temper, a womanizer!
I’m not that. Yes, the show is inspired by my beginning as a musician, arriving here to L.A. But the character, we are completely different. Yes, we are very inspired about what we do. But I’m not as crazy as Rodrigo. But I have fun watching the TV series, because it’s a good way to get people connected to classical music.
Does Los Angeles feel like home for you now?
Yes, completely. I feel so beautiful. Every day I try to make more connections between my country and Los Angeles. Because in this moment that people are trying to create more borders, between us, between human beings, we have to build more bridges. I’m looking at a map right now, of America, of all of America. We are one America, and we have to unite our vision. We can’t agree on everything, but from disagreement, we can build beautiful things. This is maybe a very utopic way to think, but I believe we can build a better world building bridges.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.