Maestro Dudamel Comes to Princeton

Welcoming Classical Music’s International Champion

By Anne Levin

In a YouTube video taped at a concert in Caracas, Venezuela, on New Year’s Eve 2007, the power of music is vividly on display. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble — an unusually large group on one stage — are playing the “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and the place is rocking.

Audience members of all ages are on their feet, dancing, cheering, clapping, and tossing confetti at the stage. The musicians, having a hard time staying in their seats, manage to shimmy and sway as they play. On the podium leading this exhilarating pandemonium is Gustavo Dudamel, the youthful, curly-haired conductor who is a legend in his home country and a superstar in the music world.

Now 37, Dudamel is in his tenth season as music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and his 19th as music director of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. He makes guest appearances with such distinguished institutions as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. And he always finds time to promote education and social change, working with young people on and off the podium.

Starting December 1, Princeton and Trenton will figure prominently in Dudamel’s frenetic schedule. In his first major academic residency, he is coming to Princeton University in three separate visits this season, continuing through the end of April. This remarkable arrangement celebrates the 125th anniversary of Princeton University Concerts, and the local arts community is abuzz.

“This is so exciting for everyone,” says Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts. “He is really going to be a part of the community for a while. The schedule of things he’ll be doing just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and he gets the credit for that. Every single time we have an idea, he just ups the ante so high. It is huge because of him, and it tells you about what a major thinker he is.”

©Robert Torres

Dudamel’s time on and off campus will include concerts, recitals, panel discussions moderated by him, art exhibits, performances by the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, and numerous other musicians, artists, and educators. But it is probably safe to say that the April 28 seminario, with hundreds of New Jersey students from initiatives inspired by El Sistema, the program that brings music into the lives of children in vulnerable communities, is at the top of the conductor’s list.

“Working with young people is the most important and rewarding thing I do,” Dudamel wrote in an email. “Any success I have is due to people who gave generously of their time and knowledge to mentor me, and I try to follow their example in sharing my experience with the next generations. Young people soak up knowledge like a sponge and have amazing passion and ideals. They have the potential to make real change in our society and our world.”

Seltzer will never forget the day she called Carol Burden, the director of the El Sistema- inspired Trenton Music Makers program, with the news that Dudamel had been booked and that time with the Trenton students was on his schedule. “She practically fell off her chair,” Seltzer says. “I mean, this is their whole purpose. He probably wouldn’t have chosen to come to a small program in New Jersey otherwise, but the fact that we could use this residency to connect him to them is just so wonderful.”

Burden is, understandably, thrilled. “We’re very fortunate that this path brings us into contact with him,” she said. “In January, 20 of our kids will play for him and talk with him, which is just incredible. At the seminario on April 28, there will be 300 kids from El Sistema programs from Paterson to Baltimore, and we take part in that. Nine programs will be represented. To have him there, and to have our kids take part … well, it’s just very exciting.”

Dudamel is considered the world’s leading proponent of El Sistema, formerly known as the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela. This innovative program, in which music is the primary avenue for social and intellectual improvement, was founded in 1975 by musician and economist Jose Abreu. According to some statistics, more than a million children, many from underprivileged circumstances, have taken part in programs in Venezuela and beyond.

Dudamel comes from a musical family, so El Sistema was not his introduction to music. But the time he did spend in the program was key in his development. “My family built a love of music into my DNA, and El Sistema, and Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, took that passion and turned it into something deep and meaningful and helped me build a career,” he says. My life without El Sistema would be unimaginable.”

When Seltzer began thinking about how to celebrate Princeton University Concerts’ 125th anniversary, she dug into the archives. She was surprised to discover that for its first four or five decades, the organization presented a lot of famous orchestras and conductors. “Princeton was a major stopping point for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic — and I thought that was unusual,” she says, “because we don’t do that anymore. I started to think about how we could reflect that in our anniversary season.”

Aware that the town already has significant ensembles such as the Princeton Symphony Orchestra and the Princeton University Orchestra, Seltzer and her colleagues decided it didn’t make sense to just bring in a touring organization. “But one of my first thoughts was, wouldn’t it be amazing to present the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra? It seemed like a niche, and a way for us to celebrate with a bit of a different take,” she says.

The renowned group wasn’t available. But the idea led Seltzer to Dudamel, who was interested. “One of the things that is important about him was that he really is so much more than a conductor, and a lot of the things he cares about and value are very much things that the series has cared about and valued — using music as a platform to reach a broader audience and explore life, and what it means to be a human being. It is so much a part of who he is.”

Dudamel was happy to accept the offer. “It is, of course, a great honor to be invited by such a great institution as Princeton University, a place with such tradition and so many great minds,” he says. “I look forward to engaging with people from across the campus — students, professors, artists, staff — and to connecting Princeton with its surrounding communities through music. It is the possibility of exploring the social impact of art, and creating projects that unite disciplines and communities, that I find most compelling about this opportunity. And of course, as I said before, working with young people simply charges my batteries and reminds me of the pure passion and joy of making music.”

The schedule for the residency continues to evolve as Seltzer and her colleagues try to keep up with Dudamel’s ideas. What is certain is that events will kick off Saturday, December 1 with a Venezuelan musical party and performance at Richardson Auditorium. The opening weekend continues with a Dudamel-curated concert by El Sistema students from Boston, a panel discussion between the conductor and Harvard Dictionary of Music editor Don Michael Randel on music, education, and social change with an emphasis on Latin America, and more.

In addition to the public events of the residency, Dudamel will spend time in classrooms on campus and in Trenton Public Schools. A concert at Richardson Auditorium on April 26 in which he conducts the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club is sold out, but a free repeat performance will be held the following day at Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton.

Dudamel is only too aware of the poverty and unrest currently going on in Venezuela, but he is hopeful for the future.

“It is of course a difficult moment in the history of my country for my brothers and sisters in the Bolivar orchestra and for their families,” he says. “But I believe in the people of Venezuela and know that better times will come. El Sistema, meanwhile, is a very beautiful symbol of hope and shows us that among the chaos, there is optimism. Still today, thousands of young children across Venezuela are learning instruments and playing music together, brightening their lives and the lives of their communities. We know it is fragile, but in spite of what’s happening, El Sistema lives and empowers. It has become a movement for art and social change around the world and a symbol of hope for young people everywhere. It is a symbol of pride for Venezuelans and will remain a force in our country long after these difficult times pass.”

For a schedule of events included  in Dudamel’s residency, visit princetonuniversityconcerts.org.