Gustavo Dudamel: El Sistema’s student who turned genius

Visionary economist, organist and politician José Antonio Abreu started Venezuela’s “El Sistema” in 1975, with five children in a parking garage.

Almost four decades down the line, some half a million children, most of them from communities living below the poverty line, have grown up in the orchestras of El Sistema.

Like all youngsters who join “El Sistema”, Gustavo Dudamel learned social responsibility alongside musicianship. It is fundamental to the principals of “El Sistema” that older students act as mentors for their younger peers, and that successful professional musicians will also take on work as teachers and leaders. Children learn conducting in the same way that they learn instrumental skills–deep end first.

“I was in a rehearsal in Barquisimeto one day, and the conductor was sick, and the podium was empty, so I thought, OK, and I took the baton.

“I hadn’t studied. I just thought, ‘I can do this.’ And it was funny, because my friends were there, playing. And they all laughed. But within five minutes it had changed. They all thought, OK, it’s time to work now. And that was beautiful.

“Then the conductor came and said, ‘Ah, you are very good! You conduct this concert.’”

Gustavo was twelve years old. Five months later he was given the assistant conductor post in Barquisimeto; by the following year, he had his own chamber orchestra.

At the age of 15, he found himself on the podium of the nation’s flagship Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (now the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela), of which he remains chief conductor.

The text above has been extracted from Dudamel’s personal website. I initially found out about him reading a British Airways magazine on a flight back to London. I was intrigued. As soon as I landed, I googled up to check whether he was playing in the UK anytime soon. He didn’t and when he did come for a performance, I was on holiday. Our timing was not good.

Until recently.

When I saw he was performing at The Barbican Centre, I instantly decided to buy tickets. I didn’t care whom or what he was conducting, but the fact that it is Mahler’s 3rd Symphony by the Los Angeles Philharmonic just made it even better. As it reads on The Barbican’s website:

This is the first time Dudamel conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony in London. For him, Mahler’s Third is ‘like reading a book of life’; and The Guardian has compared his performances of Mahler to Leonard Bernstein’s. But Dudamel has his own story to tell with this music, and this chance to hear him tell it with one of the world’s great virtuoso orchestras is likely to be one of the high points of London’s musical year.

I don’t know how many of you have had the luck already to see one of his conductions, but it you haven’t here is a small example:

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