Gustavo Dudamel is one of the music world’s most amazing individuals. At just twenty-eight the Venezulan veteran of that country’s El Sistema music program was chosen to become the new artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His welcome concert, ¡Bienvenido Gustavo!, held at the Hollywood Bowl on October 3rd, 2009, set the entire city on fire, with Dudamel’s flying curls and mile-wide smile adorning billboards around town in the months prior (full disclosure: I was a member of the festival choir at that event, which peaked with a spirited rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As an encore, the entire chorale section, the famous “Ode to Joy” movement, was repeated.)
Dudamel never forgot where he was from, and as Theodore Braun’s “¡Viva Maestro!” opens, in 2017, Dudamel is jetting back and forth to his native Venezuela, where he continues to also lead the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, coaching young musicians from similar backgrounds as himself. He demonstrates that same energy and joy that made him the sensation of two nations, and in his young charges we see the joy and the rapture he so inspires. They travel the world showcasing their significant talent—and thus buttressing stereotypes that world-class orchestras can “only” come from Europe or America.
However, politics intrudes. Following a disputed election in 2018, two men claim to be the legitimate president of Venezuela, leading to street protests, violence and worse. Heartbroken, Dudamel publishes open letters decrying the violence and seeking peaceful resolutions to the madness. The reaction sees his tours canceled and many of his musicians, in fear for their lives as well as their livelihoods, escape the country to find work elsewhere.
Not to be dissuaded, Dudamel presses on, believing in the power of music. Just as El Sistema was there for him, he will be there for the musical youth of his native country, even as he could so easily abandon them entirely for his better-paying position in Los Angeles.
Braun shows Dudamel not only at his most ecstatic—has there ever been a more dynamic force at the conductor’s podium?—but also at his most vulnerable, sharing his gentle optimism in candid moments with Braun’s camera, frequently as the maestro is in the back of a car being shuttled to his next engagement. Perhaps his view that art can save us is a tad naive, but if we don’t have the optimism and hope of someone like Dudamel, then we are, surely, lost.
Bravo, Gustavo, y gracias por su música y su energía, maestro!*
¡Viva Maestro! is now playing in select theaters
* Bravo, Gustavo, and thank you for your music and your energy, maestro!