Arts Review

Dudamel, Domingo, Villazón and the New Classical Music

In August of 2007, a YouTube video spread rapidly through the world of serious music aficionados. The three-and-a-half-minute clip was drawn from the telecast of a BBC Proms concert in London and features a diminutive, frizzy-haired young man in a windbreaker designed in the colors and patterns of the Venezuelan flag, conducting an orchestra of similarly-clad youth. The piece is the “Mambo” section from Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, the conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, and the ensemble is the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. As the clip begins, an adoring audience greets Dudamel as he steps to the podium and directs the musicians to lift their instruments over their heads. Dudamel then lifts his arms high and dives down, as the orchestra explodes with a two-note tutti fanfare, followed by feverish percussion and jerky, syncopated brass licks. The music is raucous and showy, but tight and virtuosic as well. It’s instantly electric, but these kids are just getting started.

As the piece proceeds, the camera starts to catch a few players giving their instruments a little spin and bounce as they lift them to play. When they reach the spot where Bernstein asks the orchestra members to shout “mambo!,” the musicians don’t just speak, they leap out of their seats, raise their hands in the air, and twirl their instruments around. Then things really start getting crazy. At the syncopated dig two minutes into the piece, the winds and then the strings begin to swing back and forth in their seats in time to the music, bopping and grooving. Dudamel grins and the audience explodes with excitement. A rambunctious French horn player gets a little carried away and his colleagues laugh indulgently. Thirty seconds later, the entire orchestra stands and turns around in place, swinging their shoulders and hips, provoking more boisterous love from the audience. Two of the trumpet players twirl their instruments with both hands, showcasing a trick that every horn student has slyly practiced during a long rehearsal. Dudamel looks joyful throughout—focused, concentrated, but relaxed too. The piece ends and the roof nearly flies off the Royal Albert Hall.

I’ve seen grown men reduced to happy tears by this brief video. Dudamel’s love of music-making, as evinced in his thrilling conducting and the sheer bliss it inspires in his musicians, somehow taps into the deep love of music that hooked us all in the first place as children. The antics of the young players may seem gimmicky, but they are executed with such elation and flair, and the music-making is so strong, that the only sensible response is cheerful surrender. What’s perhaps even more astounding is that this video excerpt was actually an encore to a full-length program featuring Dudamel conducting his young musicians in a disciplined reading of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, a harrowing piece forged in the cauldron of Stalin’s purges. The colorful windbreakers were put on only for the encore; underneath, those kids were wearing grown-up tuxes.

Gustavo Dudamel was twenty-six at the time of those concerts. He’s twenty-eight now. In the fall of 2009, he becomes one of the youngest music directors of a major orchestra in history when he succeeds Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In a time when the classical music recording industry is virtually moribund, he has an exclusive contract with the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label. Sir Simon Rattle, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” He has been profiled on 60 Minutes and, according to the New York Times, is “the most-talked-about young musician in the world.” And thanks to the media attention, his renown has started to spread outside the normally hermetic world of classical music. Pink’s, the celebrated hot dog emporium in Los Angeles, has even created the “Dudamel Dog,” an honor never before given to a classical musician (it’s a spicy extravaganza with guacamole, salsa and chips). Dudamel—in the minds of many in the business—will be the savior of classical music in the twenty-first century.

Born in 1981, Dudamel began studying the violin at ten and worked his way through various schools until he met the man who would change his life: José Antonio Abreu, the founder of Venezuela’s already legendary music education program, El Sistema. A genius for conducting was identified, a bond was formed and, at age eighteen, Dudamel became the music director of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra. As his reputation spread, he graduated onto the international concert stage, making important debuts at La Scala, Los Angeles, and Vienna. At a concert with the New York Philharmonic on January 20 of this year, I witnessed him conduct the Oliver Knussen Violin Concerto (with soloist Pinchas Zukerman) and the Mahler Fifth Symphony (already a specialty). As the final Rondo movement of the Fifth began racing to its majestic conclusion, Dudamel built the tension with spine-tingling panache, interlacing the various themes in an almost cinematic style, as if he were Steven Spielberg editing a masterful action scene. His unhurried confidence was breathtaking and, by the end of the piece, the pent-up excitement in the audience was physically palpable. A similar phenomenon occurred in his New York Philharmonic debut in 2007, when he brought revelatory excitement to two warhorses—Dvorák’s Violin Concerto and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony—and turned audiences on to a little-known symphony by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. The comparison that leaped to mind at both concerts was to Leonard Bernstein: the podium flamboyance, the wildly expressive stick technique, the comfort with jazz and Latin rhythms, the communal delight engendered in the concert hall. But Dudamel is also more laid back than Bernstein ever was. In his more pious moments, Bernstein emitted a sense of privileged communion with the art that seems unimaginable from the unpretentious Dudamel.

The fact that this messiah has come from Latin America is the culmination of a trend that began thirty years ago and is now bearing fruit across the musical spectrum—particularly in the operatic world. A half century ago, the major Latin American classical artists, outside of the guitar players, were few: Chile’s Ramón Vinay, Brazil’s Bidú Sayão, Peru’s Luigi Alva (who changed his name from Luis to make it sound more Italian). More recently, Puerto Rico’s Justino Diaz, Argentina’s Martha Argerich, and Mexico’s Francisco Araiza built important careers. Composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos and Alberto Ginastera found frequent play on American symphony programs, thanks to good-neighbor-policy efforts, but their marvelous music never became widely popular in Europe.

Nowadays, when you’re not seeing an Eastern European performer on the concert or opera stage, you are very likely seeing a Latin American: pianists Ingrid Fliter, Luis Parés, and Gabriela Montero (who was part of the classical ensemble at the Obama inauguration); harpist Cristina Braga; flutist Huáscar Barradas; violinist Jorge Saade; composers Daniel Catán and Osvaldo Golijov; singers Ana Maria Martinez, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Verónica Villarroel, Bernarda Fink, Paulo Szot, and Erwin Schrott; conductors Carlos Miguel Prieto, Alondra de la Parra, Enrique Diemecke, Jorge Mester, José Serebrier, and Maria Guinand. And then there are the tenors: Ramón Vargas, Juan Diego Florez, Marcelo Álvarez, José Cura, Luis Lima, Rolando Villazón, and, of course, Plácido Domingo (who, while born in Spain, was raised in Mexico), who constitute a virtual monopoly in opera’s still-dominant Italian wing. These days, a Hispanic tenor no longer has to change his name to take on Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. In fact, the native Italian singers have become somewhat of an embattled minority.

Why this flowering of international renown from south of the border? One answer lies in the importance of music in Latin American culture and in the education system. Music pedagogy was traditionally a function of the Church and of ecclesiastical academies, but at the end of the nineteenth century, many Latin American states invested in institutions dedicated to the inculcation of the arts. According to a study in the International Journal of Music Education (1999, Issue 34), music was “a way to promote civic and national values.” By the early twentieth century, most nations had mandatory music education in their schools. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism left behind a network of opera houses and concert halls not found in other third-world regions, as well as a sense that classical music was an aspirational marker, a signal of achievement and status. Latin America caught the music habit early and never really let it go. Still, economic and political uncertainty through most of the twentieth century held back many of the nations’ artists from the international stage. Now, relative stability in the last thirty years, especially in Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela, has allowed an artistic renaissance that is being felt around the world.

The primary manifestation of this renaissance is Venezuela’s astonishing national music education program, the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela), known simply as “El Sistema” or “The System.” Breakthroughs in musical education, wrought by such major names as Shinichi Suzuki, Carl Orff and Zoltán Kodály, have captured international attention over the last 100 years, but perhaps no phenomenon has received as much scrutiny and acclaim from professionals and the public as the invention of José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan economist and amateur musician. In 1975, Abreu founded Social Action for Music, an organization devoted to mainstreaming music education into every home in Venezuela. The program evolved into the publicly funded Sistema and is the pride of the country, encompassing hundreds of children’s orchestras. Abreu’s goal was to use music to fortify vulnerable youngsters against the ravages of poverty and the temptations of the streets. Thousands of individual stories support the theory that El Sistema is directly responsible for lowered crime rates and increased professional achievement among an entire generation, a phenomenon beautifully witnessed in the documentary film Tocar y Luchar. According to the New York Times, “Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school dropout rates and a decline in crime, [it is] calculated that every dollar invested in the Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.”

Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is the central showcase for El Sistema, an orchestra made of kids that tours to the world’s capitals and records for major labels. In the process, Dudamel has served as ambassador and de facto advocate for music education in other countries. Programs modeled on the Sistema prototype have sprouted throughout Latin America and are now spreading to England, Scotland, and the rest of Europe. When Dudamel comes to Los Angeles, he will participate in “Youth Orchestra LA,” which will reach out to impoverished areas of Los Angeles and will ultimately attempt to put a musical instrument into the hands of every child in the city who wants one. In this way, Dudamel is following in the grand tradition of musical leaders who make their mark not only in the pieces they conduct (and Dudamel’s currently limited repertory is the biggest question mark in his future prospects), but also in the ways they interact with the community at large, the ways they bring light to the world around them.

If Dudamel is the future of music, then Plácido Domingo is the culmination of its present. The most well-known opera performer in the world today, at age sixty-eight he continues to defy the ravages of age, of forays into heavy repertory that have destroyed many ambitious lyric tenors in the past, and of a superhuman schedule that encompasses active singing and conducting careers, teaching, recording, mentoring, and the directorship of two major opera companies, in Los Angeles and Washington, DC. Like Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti before him, he is a name in the culture at large, confidently referenced on The Simpsons and Sesame Street, pitching Rolex Watches in luxury magazines, a synecdoche for the classical musician in the modern world. He has been much in the news lately, mainly for celebrating his 40th anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera (a milestone that very few active singers reach), starring in a revival of Adriana Lecouvreur, the role in which he made his Met debut those many years ago, and winning the very first Birgit Nilsson Prize: a $1 million reward which he will surely put toward his many charitable causes. Domingo’s admirable longevity has been celebrated in every venue for over a decade now. His gifts are obvious: impeccable musicianship, a suave and expressive instrument, magnetic stage presence, idiomatic assurance and a generosity of spirit that leaps across the footlights. The fact that his high notes are always negotiated rather than embraced is a flaw that the public has long ago forgiven.

Domingo grew up in a different world from Dudamel. His parents were professional performers in zarzuela, the rarely exported Spanish operetta genre, and his schooling was on the stage. While he eventually studied at Mexico’s Conservatorio Nacional de Música, he was performing professionally by age sixteen, and his path as a creature of the stage was apparently laid out from birth. Like Dudamel, one senses in Domingo a calling, a notion that he could only truly be happy as a creative artist on a stage in front of a large audience. Interestingly, this is a fairly rare phenomenon in the world of classical music, and especially in opera. Whereas successful actors, almost to a person, will say that they are in their profession because they couldn’t conceive of any other life, singers and instrumentalists are often reluctant participants in their own careers. The phenomena that make one a gifted serious musician —for singers, often something as random as peculiarly shaped vocal cords and an unusually strong diaphragm—have almost nothing to do with the extroversion, the need for attention and approval, and the combustible mix of insecurity and self-confidence that drive performing artists in other fields. The world of classical music is littered with the broken careers of gifted musicians who were too shy, too terrified, too modest, or just too uninterested in displaying their talent in front of a lot of people. Domingo and Dudamel thrive on this attention; they devour it and turn it into fodder for their art.

A burning need to perform also fuels the world’s hottest current tenor, Mexico’s Rolando Villazón. Villazón has spent the last five years burning up the world’s stages, playing Young Turk to his mentor Domingo, who is firmly in the éminence grise stage of his career (Villazón first made an impact as a winner at the 1999 Operalia competition, an annual event founded, chaired and judged by the indefatigable Domingo). Thanks to a naturally gorgeous voice, a keen intelligence and, perhaps most importantly, a feverishly intense stage presence, Villazón became very famous, very quickly. Frequently paired with the talented and gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, he became one half of opera’s Brangelina—an attractive couple (though only on the stage) that audiences and the press could not get enough of. Major debuts in Salzburg, Vienna, Milan, Paris, London and New York, as well as several acclaimed recordings and DVDs, happened in a quick five-year period, and the future seemed limitless. Audiences reacted with delight and awe to his heartbreaking tragic characterizations, his irresistibly goofy comic roles, and the voice that just kept going and going. No matter that he bore an alarming resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, the British actor best known as the bumbling Mr. Bean; there was something wonderfully sexy about Villazón’s bushy eyebrows and bright countenance.

The thirty-seven-year-old Villazón, like Dudamel, benefitted from an intense state-sponsored education in the arts as a youngster. As a pre-teenager, he studied music, theater, ballet and modern dance at the Espacios academy before enrolling in the same National Conservatory that briefly educated Domingo. The benefits to his well-rounded performances are obvious, and he has taken an interest in musical education in Mexican schools, joining in an initiative called “For a Musical Mexico” which is attempting to bring a Sistema-like program into the national school system. “Commitment” is the word used most often in describing Villazón’s performances: he imbues every moment he spends on stage with both a laser-like focus and an almost sloppy, gushy dedication. The effect can be overpowering to some viewers; you may feel like turning down the dial from the proverbial “11.” But the drive, the passion, the connection to the world around him—all are of a piece. Villazón could easily become a Domingo-like whirlwind of advocacy, education, outreach and example; he has that kind of energy and charisma. The only thing that may hold him back is his own lack of control over his gifts.

In early 2007, something began to go terribly wrong with Villazón’s voice. High notes no longer came naturally, cracks and breaks appeared with increasing frequency, and the formerly ardent, fiery tone began to dry up. Heeding good advice, he cancelled all of his appearances for the rest of the year and retreated to an island off the coast of Spain for five months to take stock. His gradual return to the stage has had mixed results. A Contes d’Hoffmann at the Royal Opera House in London last November seemed to show him in old, welcome form: vocally fit and confident. And yet, the way he played the role worried me. Hoffmann is a neurotic, a tragic misfit, and an actor so inclined can make a meal of the role, chewing up the scenery in the process. Villazón did not hold back an inch, and it seemed that in the very essence of what makes him a thrilling performer—his frenzied, reckless abandon to the drama on the stage—lay the seeds of his undoing. Musicians learn early on that they have to work off of the interest, not the capital. A great artist, like Domingo, learns how to convey the appearance of intensity and passion, without actually succumbing to the emotion of the music and thereby losing control over the delicate physical mechanisms that sustain the voice over the long haul. Villazón does not seem to have that technique in his toolbox. Two performances of Lucia di Lamermoor, at the Metropolitan Opera in the beginning of 2009, confirmed the diagnosis. The voice was once again in serious trouble, and a lack of modulation—in short, over-singing—seemed to be the culprit. High notes eluded him. At one dramatic point at the end of the second act, he lunged for a note, fell short, stood silently still for seven endless seconds as he regrouped his resources, then made another, successful approach. The audience cheered the valiant effort, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for Villazón; he was losing the war. At the first performance of the run he was announced as indisposed, but by the second performance it was clear that serious trouble was at hand, and he cancelled the remaining performances, including a coveted live High Definition national telecast.

Villazón needs to rethink his approach to his art from the ground up if he is going to have the kind of longevity that Domingo has enjoyed. Dudamel is less reliant on precarious physical attributes, but burnout happens in conductors as well as singers, and long-term misuse of the body leads to serious physical ailments, such as those that are curbing James Levine in the latter stages of his career. Dudamel, Villazón and Domingo, three Latin American artists representing three generations, share a similar charisma—an intensity made up of intelligence, dedication, craft, passion, and sheer joy in performing. As Dudamel launches his career, he could do worse than to follow the example of Domingo, who has maintained that charisma without paying a physical price, thus creating a legacy of quality and longevity with few equals. At the same time, he can watch the career of Villazón with caution, taking steps to ensure that his star does not burn out too quickly.