After an hour-and-a-half rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet” with a mixed youth orchestra from east London and Los Angeles, Gustavo Dudamel felt the need to sit down on the podium. “I must be getting old,” he joked (in fact he had every reason to feel a little weary, having just returned from a flying visit back to Venezuela to conduct at the state funeral of Hugo Chávez). It was not entirely a joke, because Dudamel, in his thirties, a little bit more rounded than when I last saw him, suddenly appeared if not middle-aged, then old enough to be a (young) father to the youngest of the musicians in the orchestra.
And not entirely a joke because one of Dudamel’s great calling-cards has always been his youth; he has been the whizz-kid and posterboy of the classical music world, mamboing with the exuberant teenagers of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in their Latin American encores. But time waits for no man or woman; the SBYOV itself is not as youthful as it was, and Dudamel is now chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a grown-up in a grown-up’s world. Having enjoyed ecstatic press, he has had to endure a few critical brickbats.
If you wanted to be cynical, you might question the whole premise of a youth orchestra project carried out under the banner “Discover Dudamel”. But then the man himself questions it: “I don’t like that,” he said, pointing at the “Discover Dudamel” T-shirts worn by all the members of the orchestra – a gesture which no doubt brought on unpleasant palpitations in a host of PR and marketing people. He hardly needed to explain further; the point was not really to discover Dudamel, but to explore and discover the music. In the end I think the young players from the Barbican Youth Orchestra, the Centre for Young Musicians, Junior Guildhall, the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles discovered even more than the music. We will come to that.