Late in February, my friend Ashley ’12 forwarded me a notice titled “Dudamel – Open Rehearsal” and asked if I would be interested in attending with her. Scrolling through the original message, I saw a comment that “Dudamel is cool.” So, even though I had no idea whether Dudamel was a music genre, an instrument, a song title, or a composer, I replied “I’m definitely down! :)” and reserved a ticket.
A month later, Google Calendar told me that I should meet Ashley at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. The theater was PACKED (I thought: “wow! this Dudamel thing must be *very* cool!”) but we squeezed and “sorry! excuse me!”d our way in.
Flipping through my program, I learned very quickly that Dudamel is not a music genre. Dudamel is not an instrument, or a song title, or a composer. Dudamel is, according to the program bio, “Music Director of both the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the impact of his musical leadership is felt on four continents.” His guest conducting appearances include the NY Philharmonic and the Munich Philharmonic. Feeling very uncultured, I went on to read that he was voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame, has won a gazillion awards, is in the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009.
Yep. Definitely not a musical instrument.
I got a little bored of the laundry list of musical accolades, so it was refreshing – and a little surprising – to read that Harvard recently awarded him the Q Prize “for extraordinary service to children.” I was equally surprised to look up and see small children sitting on stage: in the front row, there were 7- and 8-year-olds clutching miniature violins with their feet dangling above the ground. Turns out that the “concert” was actually an open rehearsal, as part of the Sistema Side by Side seminario series. A seminario is a tradition in Venezuela, where Dudamel is from. According to the program, a seminario is “a larger ensemble community.” “Children from music programs in various neighborhoods and regions frequently come together…to make music together.”
This particular seminario was made up of: children from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (YOLA) who had flown across the country for this event + children from Massachusetts + conservatory students from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. The MA kids and the Longy students were paired up as part of a community program called Side By Side: they’ve been rehearsing together every weekend for the past year. They all wore matching black t-shirts that said SIDE BY SIDE in white letters. The timpani pair were particularly adorable; there was a little kid wearing a cast partnered up with a tall young man from Longy, and their height ratio was about 1:2.
It was a very strange construction: the intimacy of a children’s orchestral rehearsal up on stage in front of a gigantic audience, led by a famous conductor. The audience was packed with parents, sponsors, and random MIT community members who were on some mailing lists and might not have known a whole lot about what they were walking into. The man in front of me spent the entire rehearsal Facetiming on his iPhone with a woman who I presume was the mother of one of the young performers.
Imagine what this meant for Dudamel himself: as my friend Davie ’12 (who was also at the concert) put it, he had three different – not obviously reconcilable – tasks. He had to, as the conductor, run a functional and productive rehearsal. As a performer (and when a Kresge Auditorium-ful of people are watching you, you are performing whether you like it or not) he had to entertain. As the conductor of a performing children’s orchestra, he had to make the children comfortable up there on the stage.
Spoiler alert: he did all three, spectacularly.
After an introduction that included a thank-you to Rafael Reif for providing space at MIT (WOOOOO! MIT!!!!!) Dudamel finally walked on stage. On his way from stage right to the podium, he shook hands with several of the children and beamed at everybody. When the auditorium fell silent, he asked one of the kid’s in the front row: “it’s too warm in here! is it okay if I take off my jacket?” I guess the kid gave Dudamel his blessing, because Dudamel took off his fancy jacket to reveal a black t-shirt and jeans. He eased himself onto a wooden stool and leaned his elbows on his knees.
And just like that, the entire auditorium relaxed too.
My first impression of Dudamel was: “Wow, Dudamel is adorably awkward.” He stumbled over his words, mumbling that he didn’t really know the music that well, actually he didn’t know the music at all, and what were we even here to play again? Some little kid told him the answer. “Oh, okay,” he said. “You guys will have to lead me, because I don’t know the music.”
Ha! The orchestra were playing the Farandole from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 and the Finale from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, and so of course Dudamel had both of those pieces totally committed to memory (not to mention he was 110% prepared for the rehearsal). But it was a trick to make the kids more comfortable with him, and it was endearing.
He reminded me of Papageno, for those of you familiar with Mozart’s Magic Flute — he adopted a kind of charming woodland creature quality, perching on the edge of that stool. He occasionally shifted to look over his shoulder and quip to the audience. And then he lifted up his baton, and I realized that Dudamel isn’t awkward at all; he’s just expertly theatrical. Before long, he had left his stool and was standing up and Papageno was out of my mind; instead, I thought that Dudamel could be a dancer, the way he stood up straight and seemed to have complete control of every single movement.
He also had the BEST similes. “These two phrases,” he would say. “They are the same on paper, no? They are like twins. But twins – you are still different, a little bit. So we must play them differently.” To describe a grand passage, a dancer’s thumping long legs. To describe a passage of rapid notes, a dancer’s short scuttling legs. He was really brilliant, and I wish I wrote more of these down, but I was too busy being totally captivated.
At the end of the performance, Jamie Bernstein – Leonard Bernstein’s daughter (WOAH! LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S DAUGHTER!) presented an award to Dudamel: the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society. “With this award,” Jamie read aloud from the program, “Longy recognizes an artistic leader whose life has been dedicated to inspiring and enriching lives through music. The Bernstein laureate, whether as a performer or teacher” – and here she broke from the program and said “OR BOTH!” – “exemplifies how music can lift spirits, raise the level of culture in society, and transform lives.” Dudamel said that he was part of the El Sistema family (the program in Venezuela that inspired Side by Side) and was receiving the award as part of that family and not as an individual.
And then it was time to leave. Dudamel got the audience to give an extra gigantic round of applause for the little timpani player. “He’s the best timpani player I have ever seen in an orchestra!” Dudamel announced. “Playing with one hand!” (the kid had a cast.) He gave the timpani player a hug, then turned outward and smiled at all of us. “I am becoming an old man,” he said. “Because, when you feel like a father, you are becoming an old man.”
He left the stage, and the parents in the audience rushed up to be with their kids.