Orchestra conductors are usually seen by audiences but not heard, except as they speak through their music-making. In recent years, that convention has loosened somewhat. A conductor may briefly introduce a piece and suggest key moments to listen for, in an attempt to make audience members—perhaps attending a classical music concert for the first time—feel more connected to the stage. In New York City, Thomas Crawford has made such commentary, delivered with a light touch, a standard part of his American Classical Orchestra’s concerts.
The coronavirus quarantines have now provided an outlet for one of classical music’s most endearing personalities to speak about his musical passions. Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel is releasing a series of one-hour radio programs introducing some of his favorite pieces. Just how endearing is Dudamel? Interviewer Brian Lauritzen, an announcer on Los Angeles’s classical music station KUSC, tried to create a segue from John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine to a selection from John Williams’s score for ET by noting that both Johns were Dudamel’s friends. Dudamel interjected, not at all facetiously: “Don’t forget that Mozart is also my friend!” (Dudamel had opened the first hour with the finale from Mozart’s Symphony #41 in C Major before moving on to the Adams.) Such ingenuous love recalls Renaissance humanist Francesco Petrarch’s confession in a letter to Cicero: “I feel that I know you as intimately as if I had always lived with you.”
Dudamel’s selections for his first program were standard repertory works, consistent with the current move on classical radio stations toward an even higher quotient of familiar comfort-food music. Besides the Mozart, Adams, and Williams, he chose Ravel’s La Valse and Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2, a work that Dudamel himself has made a world-wide sensation. The emphasis in his selections and his presentation was on movement, energy, and, as Dudamel said repeatedly, joy. He spoke about his experiences as a young violinist in Venezuela as part of the youth music program El Sistema. It was that program’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, who told Dudamel to listen to Mozart when he first woke up in the morning—in particular to the Jupiter Symphony, because, as Dudamel said of the work, “it’s about the spirit, it’s about the contemplation of the beauty, the contemplation of the joy.” Dudamel’s performance with the L.A. Philharmonic from a concert last season, rebroadcast here, was gloriously fast and frisky, the strings a quicksilver filigree. In 1994, when Dudamel was 12, Arturo Márquez conducted the El Sistema orchestra in the Danzón No. 2. The traditional dance form was already “in our bodies,” Dudamel said, and his description of the Marquez Danzón reflects that physical understanding: it “has this beautiful sweet touch, this sensual touch of the dance. It’s a ritual [with a] specific choreography . . . and it makes your spirit move in a very sensual happy way.”
Trying to convey through language the sensations that music creates can be immensely frustrating, but Dudamel’s uninhibited use of straightforward words of feeling is both refreshing and apt.
Unavoidably, these conversations contain a certain quotient of virus uplift, but it is not overwhelming. The series, At Home with Gustavo, is among the more ambitious and valuable of the web offerings that many classical music organizations are now rushing to provide. Some orchestras are simply putting their own recordings on the web, without a paywall, though the Berlin Philharmonic did play a livestreamed concert in a virus-emptied concert hall under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato and tenor Piotr Beczała performed excerpts from Massenet’s Werther in DiDonato’s New York apartment, after their Metropolitan Opera engagement was cancelled. That initiative was more heartfelt than artistically compelling, not aided by the modest piano and harp accompaniment.
Winding up his first hour of conversation, Dudamel said: “The most important thing is the music.” That is true, now and always. But this opportunity to hear Dudamel speak about that music should have listeners tuning in across the globe.