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Gustavo Dudamel on why he's staying in LA and how classical music can reach the working class

Gustavo Dudamel has just completed his sixth season as artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As Dudamel prepared to conduct his final concert of the season, we talked with him in a green room at Walt Disney Concert Hall about why he decided to stay in L.A., the status of the Philharmonic, reaching more diverse audiences and more.

Dudamel's L.A. connection

Dudamel says that he's felt a great connection ever since coming to Los Angeles in 2005, but he's trying to build the Philharmonic into an even better family.

"The most important thing for an artist, especially working in a group, is to have a good atmosphere," Dudamel says. "And this atmosphere is always there, even if, like life, it's not a good day — always, we are focused in the music, and to give the best that we can, to create something."

He says he's proud that the group's work has led to the Philharmonic being seen as an important arts institution by the world. As he continues putting his imprint on the orchestra, he says it's natural that some musicians will come and go.

"The orchestra is full of people of experience that were hired by my predecessors," Dudamel says, "and that is very important. They are a very important part of the family. But always, the natural action, have to move. People have to go to open the space to the new generations, and I think the balance right now in the orchestra is very good."

Why he decided to stay here

As rumors swirled recently about interest from other major orchestras, Dudamel signed a contract extension that will keep him in L.A. through the 2022 season.

"Every day you have an idea of what you want to do, how you can make that possible. And I think we have many things still to do. We have been doing a lot, really a lot in these six, seven years that I have been music director. And I'm looking forward for the centennial. That is a very special moment for the family, and many projects — if I say one, it will be too short of the good ambition that we have."

Dudamel told us the ease he felt about renewing his contract.

"Come the day that I decided to extend the contract, I was sure. I was really happy. It was not something difficult to say, well, I will be [here] until 2022. It's big, it's a long time, but it was not difficult. It was very natural, because [of] the wonderful relation that we have."

We asked Dudamel about the rumors that he was being courted by the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. Dudamel expressed pride in being mentioned alongside those groups, but tiptoed around the exact negotiations.

"The gossip around the world is always very big — who will be the next? Look, to be part of that is an honor for me," Dudamel says. "But here we have a great orchestra that is very important, and that we are developing something really, really, really deep. I have a great respect and huge love for all of these orchestras — for example, I go to Berlin every season."

Reaching younger, poorer, less white audiences

Being a member of the city of L.A. has affected Dudamel, he says.

"I love Los Angeles. I really love this city, and [it's] really important, huge that my son was born here. That is something beautiful. That is a unique connection with the city. Plus the family, of course, and the friends. I feel privileged in life, and that for me is the most important thing to live in a place."

Dudamel says he also enjoys the city's diversity.

"Here in Los Angeles, we have people from many countries, and that is something beautiful in Los Angeles — all of these big communities, coming from different places, interacting together."

Still, despite the city's diversity, the Philharmonic's audiences tend to be older, whiter and richer, missing the strong Latino element of the city's population. Dudamel says that, even with those facts, the concert hall still belongs to the people.

"This is their house. This is their home. And I think everybody in Los Angeles feels proud of this building, as a symbol of architecture, of the genius of Frank Gehry, together with all the team. But also we have a great orchestra that works for the community."

Dudamel says the Philharmonic is open to everyone, and that there is at least one Latino element. "It's Latino, because here is a Latino," Dudamel says, referring to himself.

"I'm a Latino, and I'm very proud to be Venezuelan, Latino. And also, I'm very proud to be part of this community, because at the end, after seven years, you also feel Angeleno," Dudamel says. "This classical music is not an elitist element of society. If not, it's art, culture — and culture is important for the people. So I invite everybody to come and to be part of this wonderful journey. To have one of the greatest orchestras in the world, one of the best venues, having one of the best cities in the world."

Price can be one of the barriers to entry — a look at tickets for a recent concert with music from Philip Glass showed a ticket in almost the last row for $65, and another with an obstructed view for $75.

"It can be an issue, but we are working in projects where the community can be part of something that is reasonable. And for example, we started when I became music director, I saw many people working here around in the hall that, they were working here, but they didn't see the hall inside. And for me, it was like, wow. Let's do something, let's bring them to a rehearsal."

Dudamel says that he brought those people in to see rehearsals as part of the orchestra's family, and that the orchestra also reaches out to the community through community concerts.

"At the beginning of the season, we go to the communities. Because that is also important. We cannot expect for the people only to come. The orchestra has to go to the community, and we play these beautiful community concerts. I remember, we were doing 'Peter and the Wolf' with Julie Andrews in church, in the hospital, in these kinds of things. Not because it's a compromise, it's because it's important to do. It's part of our responsibility as an artist. An artist is part of the community, and a very important part of the community that has to share the beauty."

As he puts together the orchestra's season, he has to serve different masters — much of the crowd wants classics, but there's also a desire to introduce new works and new composers. Dudamel has to strike a balance between the classics and those that can be new to the ear.

"When we did the Brahms festival, we did [it] with new pieces. Most of them were premieres. With Brahms, that is the most traditional composer."

Dudamel says he approaches it like introducing someone to new food.

"When you don't know something that somebody put on your table, but you combine with something that you know, it's easy to understand. Maybe you don't like, but at least you try. And Los Angeles is a symbol of future, because always, future doesn't exist, remember. The future is an action, a co-action of the present. So, the thing is that when we do modern music and we are in our commitment of the future, we have to do that today."

Why music education matters

His own musical success comes out of Venezuela's El Sistema music education program. Dudamel continues that passion with L.A.'s Youth Orchestra, and says that music education is key.

"We cannot see art, culture, as something that is not important for our children. What is the Sistema about at the end in Venezuela? It is an artistic/social program, that has become a right for the children. It's like health care, it's like education. You know, we need more of that for our children, because it's about creativity. Arts culture is about creativity, it's about feelings, it's about beauty."

Dudamel says that music can be used to reach out to those not included in society.

"The people that don't have possibilities. So when you give an instrument to a child, that is poor, doesn't have money, he doesn't have identity, because he's poor. Poverty's about that — identity," Dudamel says. "When you give an instrument, what a beautiful symbol, because an artist, it's not common to be part of the society only as a normal, regular person, if not as an artist, as a special person."

Dudamel credits José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, with helping him.

"I'm a result of that, of that project, but also I see how this changed the life of these children, and how powerful is the music to help them to be somebody in life."

The joy of getting older — and no longer being a boy wonder

As summer starts, Dudamel has more work even though it's the Philharmonic's off-season — he'll be conducting at the Hollywood Bowl. Still, he does make time to recharge.

"I do everything. I love to read, I love to go to the cinema, I love to spend time with my family. And now that my son is 4 years old, I'm spending more time with him," Dudamel says. "And it's so beautiful, because you feel that you are getting old, and to get old is fun also. I like, I have a lot of gray hair, and I like that. It's not only curly, it's also getting gray."

He’s 34 years old now — no longer the boy-wonder conductor who took the orchestra and city by storm.

"Now I'm taking more time to rest, because my boy, and the family, of course. And this is the thing, you know — I'm working all the time, but at the same time, I love what I do, so I don't get tired of that."

Dudamel says that while he was labeled a boy wonder, that's not how he saw himself.

"The thing is that I never was a genius; I never was a prodigy. I was developing my life as a student with a lot of work, with a lot of love — that is important. That is why, when people ask me, what is the secret — it's to love what you do. And to use your talent, even if it's very small, with intelligence. To measure what to do and what not to do. Sometimes, the most difficult thing is to know what not to do, than what to do."

Dudamel says that each day is still a new beginning.

"It's like when we play a symphony — and we start, even if we have been playing thousands of times, every time that we play the first note, we are starting something. So I hope God gives me life to develop not only a career, [but] a life through music. To develop my intellect as an artist, and to do my best to bring music to more and more and more people. That is my goal, at the end."

Despite all the time he spends on music, Dudamel still has time for other pursuits — like being a Lakers fan. He came to the city as one, but he's learning to appreciate the competition.

"Clippers, they are doing very good, very well, and I'm very happy. But well, look, if Lakers, they don't get to the finals and Clippers go, I have to go for Clippers."

Dudamel says he still has more left undone in L.A.

"My extension here is because we have so many things — it's going so well, that when it's going so well, the things, you try to push yourself forward, you know, more and more and more and more, to do more things, and I think we have still a lot of room to do wonderful projects."

He says he's happy with what he's done — but he's also happy thinking about the future. Dudamel will conduct the L.A. Philharmonic for several concerts in July. For the schedule, go to HollywoodBowl.com.