Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 13:05 UK

Dudamel and the sound of Spring

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Dudamel jokes with his musicians during rehearsal

By Clare Walmsley
Arts Reporter, BBC News

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel nods at the timpani to repeat a phrase before turning to the audience: " I think this was the beginning of heavy metal music," and grins.

Dudamel tells listeners at this open rehearsal of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela that in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring they are hearing "the most important piece in the history of music".

The work paved the way for modern music, with its insistent dissonance prompting a riot at the 1913 premiere.

As Dudamel runs through the piece, bouncing and swaying frantically on the platform and working his young players to ever higher levels of urgency, it is easy to sense a new musical revolution.

The 28-year-old and his orchestra have shaken the classical world with their energy and fire. They stormed the 2007 Proms and have returned to London for a short residency at the Festival Hall.

Popular appeal

Thousands have claimed free places at open rehearsals, while tickets for the concerts - at which jackets are thrown into the crowd rock-gig style - are changing hands for hundreds of pounds on eBay.

Before rehearsing, Dudamel told the BBC's Newsnight Review of his bid to save classical music from elitist associations.

"To go to the communities, to give, to have more people come and enjoy the wonderful world of the classical music, this is my goal and it's not just me - it's all my generation that have to work for this."

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon
For us, it is our life to play
Gustavo Dudamel

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) first came to the world's attention in 2003 when greats of the music world like Placido Domingo and Sir Simon Rattle began to speak of the extraordinary levels of musical brilliance being reached in Venezuela.

The country's free music education system, El Sistema, has trained more than a quarter of a million children from all backgrounds, funnelling them into almost 200 orchestras.

Dudamel himself trained as a violinist and conductor in El Sistema and was appointed director of the SBYO before he turned 20.

"You can be seated in our orchestra with a very poor kid, you have money maybe and another kid is middle class, another had drugs problems before," he says.

"But when they are in the orchestra, they have the same level."


An unusual energy fills this open rehearsal - it feels like a combination of classroom and family gathering.

Dudamel, though late arriving to the stage, takes the time for an individual exchange, joke or handclasp with musicians on his way to the conductor's podium.

Members of the orchestra
The teenagers have toured the world under Dudamel's tutelage

His corrections throughout the rehearsal, though firm, are often delivered with a joke. Shaking his head at one feebly rendered passage, he bleats the second violins' part back at them, until laughing along, they deliver more of a punch.

"This is my family" the conductor says of the group.

"Some of these musicians, started to study music when we were five years old together."

But whilst some of Dudamel's peers still play with the orchestra, most have to move on with age.

Not all the graduates of El Sistemo's orchestras can be professional musicians but they make up the country's passionate, musically literate audiences while a steady stream of younger players replenishes the SBYO.

'Special energy'

There is an unmistakably teenage twitchiness at the rehearsal. Layers of clothing are taken on and off, baseball caps are adjusted, flipped round, there's scratching and leg bouncing and people nudging their neighbour for a joke.

A snigger is suppressed in the back row when a baby crying in the audience breaks a striking silence in the piece.

Members of the orchestra
Many of the orchestra members have played together since they were tiny

The orchestra seems always on the verge of breaking out, overflowing with high spirits. A spontaneous ripple of applause rises from the other players when a flautist nails one of the conductor's corrections.

And Dudamel himself breaks off to point out an "amazing" harmony to the audience or, with a crazy wiggle of his eyebrows, to highlight the bassoon passage which was compared with Duke Ellington by Leonard Bernstein, himself an advocate for popularising classical music.

But when Dudamel really harnesses that bubbling nervous energy of his group, their Rite of Spring takes on a truly frightening urgency.

"For us it is our life to play" says Dudamel.

"It's like the first or the last time that we play, it's why you can feel a special energy coming, it's more than the sound of the music, it's the feeling of the orchestra."

It is also the feeling that here is the exhilarating power of youth - and nothing can stand in its way.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela continue at the Royal Festival Hall, London until 18 April.

You can see a full interview with the conductor plus a review of the concert on Newsnight Review, 17 April at 2300.

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