Well before the Los Angeles Philharmonic packed for its 10-day tour to Caracas, Venezuela, music director Gustavo Dudamel said that his mission was to show off his orchestra to his home country. And yes, the audiences have been indefatigably enthusiastic. But equally exceptional has been the impression the local musicians have had on the L.A. players.
Midway through their trip, the Angelenos are reveling in their interactions with the young musicians of Dudamel’s home orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony, and the students of the state-supported El Sistema music education program, whose most famous pupil is Dudamel.
The L.A. players have been rehearsing side by side with members of the Bolívar Symphony for Saturday’s performance of Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony. In addition, several L.A. musicians have participated in coaching sessions with student orchestras.
Principal flutist David Buck said that he was so floored by an orchestra of 15- to 18-year-olds that at first he was afraid he would have nothing to say to them. “The whole trip was worth it just for that,” he said.
The Bolívar players are known for their physicality, something that concerns the Americans, said Gretchen Nielsen, the L.A. Phil’s education director. The arm gestures of the string players are so enthusiastic that these players could develop muscular problems as they age, similar to those that found in athletes. Indeed, Dudamel, who trained as a violinist in El Sistema, has had issues with his neck and shoulder.
A room full of Venezuelan students can also be ear-shattering. On a visit, the orchestra’s physician on the tour, Dr. Andrew Wachtel, carried a pair of earplugs draped around his neck rather like a stethoscope.
But cellist Barry Gold also points to the extreme sensitivity of playing he has witnessed that is equally Venezuelan. And, he said, the Venezuelans’ sense of pride has been contagious to the Angelenos.
Much about this tour has been unexpected.
This is going to be big.
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrived backstage at Caracas’ Teatro Teresa Carreno for its first rehearsal with chorus and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony Wednesday morning, the first reaction from many Angelenos was a gasp, a wow and a big smile. Then they whipped out their cameras.
A sea of tightly packed children and young singers rose to the roof. The official count was 1,207, but with that many, who’s counting? They were warming up, and it seemed as though the earth itself was singing solfège syllables. The sound was primal. “I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into,” cracked the L.A. Phil’s longtime production director, Paul M. Geller.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday had a free day from its performances of Mahler symphonies with Gustavo Dudamel in Caracas, Venezuela, and spent it on an excursion to a tropical rum farm outside of town. The media, however, only got as far as a race track at the edge of town.
It's not what you think.
The track, which is surrounded by dangerous barrios, was closed, but not the betting office. That has been converted to the Núcleo La Riconada, and there I met Christhien Diaz, a small, quiet but not shy boy of 13 who is studying percussion. He is one of 2,000 music students here, in one of the largest and oldest of Venezuela's more than 300 núcleos. In them, children, beginning as young as 2 and most often living in poverty, are provided instruments and world-class musical training for free for the rest of their youth.
What doesn’t kill you will make you fat, the Venezuelans are said to joke.
With a day off in Caracas between performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on Saturday night and Mahler's Fourth on Monday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on its first visit here, got a taste of that saying, so to speak. This is not a town in which a visitor might safely roam, and especially not on an election day, as Sunday was. So the players took it easy in their hotel.
Because raw foods and unpeeled fruit are not recommended (there has already been a case of food poisoning), available Venezuelan cuisine has tended toward things high in fat and calories. Sugar is plentiful. But maybe that hasn’t been such a bad thing.
The performance of the Mahler Fourth had a relaxed but potent sweetness Monday in the Teatro Teresa Carreno that it hadn’t when Gustavo Dudamel began his Mahler Project with the symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall exactly one month earlier.
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
After the end of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s excitable and radiant performance Saturday night at Teatro Teresa Carreño of Mahler’s hauntingly elegiac Ninth Symphony, Gustavo Dudamel stopped to sign autographs for screaming fans who ran up to the foot of the stage of Caracas’ main concert hall.
The L.A. Phil had arrived in Venezuela late the night before, and the orchestra's caravan of buses had been given a police escort from the Simón Bolívar International Airport to the orchestra’s hotel. More motorcycle police accompanied the players Saturday afternoon on the 5-mile drive from their hotel to the first of five performances in the country’s capital.
Not only is the L.A. Phil the first major international orchestra to visit Venezuela in more than two decades, but the Venezuelan conductor and his L.A. orchestra are rock stars here. So popular is Dudamel that Frank Gehry was commissioned to design a concert hall for Dudamel's hometown of Barquisimeto that the town wants to name after the 31-year-old conductor. It will replace a soccer field and serve the kind of youth orchestras Dudamel played in while growing up.
On the other hand, a police presence may have also been a wise precaution in a country notorious for its violent crime. Venezuela averaged 53 murders a day last year.
What did the conductor say to the Muppet?
Watch below to see Gustavo Dudamel make his musical “Sesame Street” debut.
During the minute-and-a-half segment, which premiered Monday on PBS, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director, accompanied by Elmo, demonstrates the meaning of "stupendous" with a violin-playing sheep, an octopus percussionist and an all-penguin choir.
After sating itself with super-sized helpings of Gustav Mahler this winter, the Los Angeles Philharmonic won't be curbing its appetite for large-scale undertakings next year.
The Phil's 2012-13 season, which will be officially announced later Monday, is a combination of large- and medium-size projects (some new, some evolving from its current season), along with the return of several familiar faces (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Zubin Mehta).
And although there'll be nothing like this season's nine-course banquet of Mahler symphonies, the composer's Symphony No. 5 will be performed in October under guest conductor Daniel Harding.
The season also will have a distinctly operatic flavor, featuring several staged or semi-staged works. They include the second of a planned trilogy of Mozart/Da Ponte operas, "The Marriage of Figaro," conducted by the Phil's music director, Gustavo Dudamel, with sets designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel and costumes by couturier Azzedine Alaïa.
Deborah Borda, the Phil's president, said in an interview that the Mozart project, which the Phil conceived with architect Frank Gehry, grew out of Dudamel's belief that "an orchestra needs to play Mozart, for purity of sound, and they also need to play opera once in a while, to be nimble."
The project is allowing the Phil to continue to explore the spatial and staging possibilities of Gehry's iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall. Rather than opera sets, Borda described the planned Mozart designs as "installations."
Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is always an event, even when the "Symphony of Thousand" is a symphony of a more typical 350. But Gustavo Dudamel wanted a spectacle to climax his Los Angeles Philharmonic Mahler Project. He got it Saturday night in the Shrine Auditorium.
Thrilling, of course, automatically goes with a cast-of-a-thousand territory, and 1,017 was apparently the final tally for the performance. Unlike anything else the deeply probing Mahler wrote, this is a symphony of unambiguously jubilant, blissful buoyancy. With such multitudes onstage and five times their number in the audience to provide an atmosphere for collective wonder, Dudamel turned this into an occasion of ecstatic revivalism.
"Try to imagine the whole universe beginning to ring and resound,” Mahler wrote of his Eighth. So try to imagine Saturday a chorus of more than 800 singers, 125 of them children, coming on stage filling 10 rows of risers. The nearly 200 members of the combined L.A. Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela were crammed together. A brass band was positioned on high, taking over a box above one side of the stage. An angelic soprano bathed in golden light, one of eight vocal soloists, later occupied the box on the other side.
Gustavo Dudamel is getting ready to scale yet another summit in his young career. On Saturday, he will conduct Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the "Symphony of a Thousand," for the first time.
The concert, which takes place Saturday evening at the Shrine Auditorium, features the largest group of performers ever assembled by the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- 1,011 musicians and singers, from 18 different groups.
Final touches to the concert were still being made as late as Saturday morning, so the final tally could change slightly.
The L.A. Philharmonic is teaming up with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and 16 local choral groups, both professional and amateur, plus several vocal soloists.
We recently sat in on rehearsals at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Shrine Auditorium and found out how the chorus is coming together from Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Kathie Freeman, the chorus wrangler.
You can watch video above.
You can also read our full, behind-the-scenes report on putting together Saturday's concert.
-- David Ng
Photo: Gustavo Dudamel at a recent rehearsal for Mahler's Symphony No. 8 at Disney Hall. Credit: Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging
In the final and most demanding week of his Mahler Project, Gustavo Dudamel has been pushing a conductor’s physical, mental and Mahler endurance about as far as it can go. There have been single days in which he has rehearsed two different symphonies and performed a third. He has been, all the while, shuttling between two radically different orchestras -– the feisty Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the refined Los Angeles Philharmonic -- as well as shuttling between Walt Disney Concert Hall and the twice-as-big Shrine Auditorium.
Tuesday night with the Bolívars at Disney, Dudamel conducted an 80-minute Seventh, which is the least performed and most elusive of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies. On Thursday, Dudamel led the first of three performances of a lyrically transcendental 90-minute Ninth with the L.A. Phil. In extraordinary performances -– conducted, as usual, from memory -- Dudamel reached new and Mahlerian heights. If he was exhausted, he didn’t show it.
He is, of course, exhausted. During a break between rehearsals Wednesday, Dudamel, struggling to remain coherent, delivered a few groggy remarks to an audience of 400 educators at an L.A. Phil symposium on Venezuela’s El Sistema music education program. The conductor also, after all, is engaged in a full-time engineering challenge of putting together the spiritually ecstatic Eighth with a cast of a thousand at the Shrine Saturday night.