Dudamel! Anatomy of a cross-campus residency
Gustavo Dudamel is a busy man.
Spread your fingers across any random desk calendar. In the space between your thumb and pinky finger, Dudamel — the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — could be helming a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, mixing Stravinsky with live performances by Katy Perry and Herbie Hancock, touring the Vienna Philharmonic from Bogotà to Buenos Aires, hanging out with Laura Dern and James Cordon on “The Late Late Show,” or conducting Puccini’s “La Bohème” at the Opéra National de Paris. Last month, he celebrated his 38th birthday. That’s not a typo.
Tucked into his continent-crossing, kaleidoscopic schedule, Dudamel is engaged in a year-long residency at Princeton divided into three multi-day visits. As if a current of positivity runs directly from his heart to the audience, Dudamel’s infectious passion for the power of music to unite has played out across campus and in the community with audiences of all ages.
And in his first two visits — which included public talks, faculty panels and classroom visits — he hasn’t even held a baton. Yet.
Dudamel returns to Princeton April 22-28. Public events include concerts, a film screening, public conversations and more. Details online. On April 26 and 27, Dudamel will conduct two concerts with the Princeton University Glee Club and Princeton University Orchestra, at Richardson Auditorium, and at the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, respectively. Both concerts are sold out. A standby line will form two hours prior to each concert at the venue.
A collaboration come true
Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts, said that the celebration of the series’ 125th season reflects its core values: “making music accessible, and using music to build community, to engage in real-world conversations, and to explore other disciplines.” Dudamel, she said, embodies them all. “We’re so lucky he said yes.”
Why did Dudamel say yes to Princeton? “I saw an amazing opportunity in a place like this to build an idea about music as an element of social change,” he said. “I am ultra-happy to do this here. … With all of the great teachers and thinkers here … we are creating this space.”
By engaging with a wide range of academic departments and community partners, Seltzer said, “Dudamel has lit our original vision on fire.”
“Dudamel exudes an energy, excitement and passion about music and music education that transcends the conventional barriers between the thinking and doing — between the arts and the life of the intellect,” said Wendy Heller, the Scheide Professor of Music History and chair of the Department of Music.
Following is a timeline of moments capturing some of the events of Dudamel’s first two visits in December and January.
A public welcome: ‘Culture, creativity, connection, contemplation’
Dec. 1, 8:12 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall. As Dudamel steps onto the stage for his first public appearance at Princeton — a conversation with musicologist Don Michael Randel, a 1962 alumnus and 1967 graduate alumnus in music — the audience breaks into deafening applause, whoops and “bravo’s.” Settling into an armchair, Dudamel waits, as if creating a beat of silence with his lifted baton before the opening of a symphony.
Down comes the baton. “Hello,” he says, a twinkle in his eye. “I am Gustavo Dudamel.”
He tells a childhood story he would tell multiple audiences during the residency.
“After school, at home, I lined up my toys in a perfect orchestra. I stood on a little wooden box. We had LPs back then, recordings of all the great orchestras — Berlin, Vienna, Chicago. I would say ‘Stop!’ constantly. My orchestra made many mistakes! I was very tough with them! I would stop the record, then start again. I destroyed the LPs! That was also the gift of imagination that we have to open for our children.”
Dudamel’s devotion to education and social change stems in part from his experience with Venezuela’s El Sistema program as a child. Founded by José Antonio Abreu 40 years ago, El Sistema (“The System”) provides free music education to young people in low-income communities.
Around age 11 or 12, Dudamel started playing the violin at his El Sistema nucleo — but only to be with his friends, who were all violinists. Fifteen students shared a single violin. “One day, the conductor was late,” Dudamel says. “I stepped up.”
Randal asks him how to make music into a powerful force in society.
“We start with education,” Dudamel says. “It’s important for children to have access to beauty, space to create beauty. The freedom we have to give to our people is culture, creativity, connection, contemplation. I don’t see a better example of how society works than an orchestra or a choir. They get together and listen to each other and create one sound that is beautiful, that transforms the life of the people who are listening.”
The event concludes with a lively performance by Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado.
Seltzer remembers a highlight of that night: “The brightest image of the residency so far is the person who came into the hall [during Machado’s performance] and spread the Venezuelan flag over an entire row of seats.”
A private welcome for an audience of two
Dec. 2, 11:10 a.m. Chancellor Green Rotunda. Dudamel and his wife, Spanish actress María Valverde, enter the ornate octagonal library on a private campus tour led by senior Lou Chen.
On this Sunday morning, all is quiet. Then, the Princeton University Glee Club, standing on the second-floor balcony, bursts into the Venezuelan folk song “Apure en un viaje,” conducted by Gabriel Crouch, director of choral activities and senior lecturer in music. Dudamel puts his arm around his wife, his face alight. When they finish, he thanks the choir: “For us, it is like coming to heaven.” He asks if anyone is from a Latin American country. Sophomore Mariana Corichi Gomez calls out, “Sí.” Dudamel asks “¿De donde [what part]?” She replies, identifying the region. “Bueno!” he says, then to everyone, “I look forward to working with you soon!”
The tiny entourage walks to the next stop, Mathey College Common Room. Chen picks up a baton and leads the Trenton Youth Orchestra — who have been waiting at the ready, instruments in hand — in a suite from the Harry Potter movies. (Three years ago, Chen, a music major, founded TYO, an ensemble of high-school-aged musicians who practice weekly on campus with Princeton student coaches. Chen earned the A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award, given annually by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, for his work with TYO.)
A meaningful moment for senior Mary Kim, a TYO coach, happened when the mini-concert ended. “He asked one of the girls if he could hold her violin. Gently turning it over in his hands, he told the kids how his very first violin ‘looked just like this one.’ It was a touching reminder that everyone starts from somewhere, and every child has seeds of talent and passion that need to be cultivated with a lot of love and attention,” she said.
Looking ahead to April, Kim, a violinist in the Princeton University Orchestra, said she is “excited to play under his infectious energy and his quick wit and humor. I know that under his guidance and wisdom and his intense focus, the orchestra will be pushed towards a musical and emotional maturity surpassing anything we've ever experienced as an ensemble.”
A world premiere
Dec. 2, 3:44 p.m., Richardson Auditorium. Donnacha Dennehy, associate professor of music, jumps up onstage for a bow after his new work, “Strange Folk,” is performed by Quartet 212, an ensemble of principal members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, in a concert program curated by Dudamel. It is the first of three works commissioned from members of the Princeton music faculty for the residency.
Following the concert, Dennehy, a native of Dublin, said the inspiration for “Strange Folk” came from “the incredible fascination that we had for all things American when I was a kid. It’s like someone from way off — an immigrant like me — imagining a different and slightly weird folk culture in a kind of idealized place. Of course, I enjoyed the extra complication that American folk music is itself influenced by Irish music, among others.”
Dudamel takes part in a post-concert talk with Deborah Borda, president of the New York Philharmonic and former president of the LA Philharmonic. “This is the beginning of a beautiful journey,” he says. “It is such a privilege to be sharing music with you and the children and that we keep having fun!”
‘Art is an essential human right’
Jan. 7, 12:16 p.m., Marx Hall, Room 301. In a discussion hosted by the University Center for Human Values, Melissa Lane, the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and director of UCHV, asks: “How do we envision the arts as central to society and to areas of concentrated deprivation?”
Patricia Fernández-Kelly, professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Migration and Development, and Ekédi Mpondo-Dika, a researcher in sociology, unpack examples from their own research — from the rise of world-famous rapper Pitbull, the son of impoverished Cuban immigrants, to the ways rap music provides solace and camaraderie in underserved Trenton communities.
Dudamel shares the story of starting an El Sistema program in a remote community of immigrants in Sweden, which now serves 10,000 children. “Art is an essential human right,” he says.
Kim Worthington, a graduate student in history, said a highlight of the panel was Dudamel’s description “that ‘poverty’ is a relative term and we should broaden our understanding beyond concerns with money.”
“One thing Dudamel said that made a deep impression on me was, ‘What is worse than being poor is to be no one,’” said senior Kevin Zhang, a philosophy major and member of the Princeton Pianists Ensemble. “Dudamel said music is so powerful because it provides people with an identity and a dignity.”
How music feeds the soul
Jan. 7, 9:14 p.m., Richardson Auditorium. An ensemble of members of the LA Philharmonic finish their concert with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.
The stage is cleared and three stools brought in. Dudamel hops onto one, notepad in hand. Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, and Alexander Nehamas, the Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities and professor of philosophy and comparative literature, take the others.
Dudamel says Mozart’s Quintet “touches the stars. It is pure beauty. For me, that is faith.” He asks Pagels and Nehamas what connections they’ve experienced between art and faith.
Nehamas shares a memory of his parents taking him to the Salzburg Festival at age 7, where he judged Hindemith “a little heavy.” At age 10, he heard Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and loved it. He agrees with Dudamel’s reflection on the quintet they’ve just heard. “If I die, play the larghetto of the quintet,” he says. “There is a contradiction there: It makes you happy to be sad.”
Dudamel makes a show of dropping his notebook on the floor, abandoning his prepared questions. He just wants to listen to the two professors talk.
Pagels, who lost her 6-year-old son and her husband within a year of each other, says that Christmases have been difficult for her. She recalls hearing her daughter sing in the choir at Trinity Church in Princeton one Christmas Eve. “The church was packed. The music helped my heart. I thought to myself, ‘This story is about the miraculous birth of a child and the death is coming. This story is woven out of countless stories.’”
“Music is the most direct access to what I think is a spiritual dimension,” Pagels says. “The mass is constructed to open you up. With the psalms, the whole world makes music.”
A week later, Christina Jeanes, a Princeton resident and Spanish teacher who grew up in Argentina and Spain, was still thinking about Nehamas’ comment about feeling happy to be sad. Dudamel had responded, “That is also what happens with boleros.” “I grew up listening to boleros,” Jeanes said, “so I know exactly what he means. I am so grateful to Princeton University for offering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”
Engaging with young Trenton musicians
Jan. 7, 4:09 p.m., Woolworth Center, Room 102. Trenton Music Makers, an El Sistema-inspired program for elementary to high school students, plays Rossini’s “William Tell” overture. Dudamel leans his chin in his left hand, smiling broadly, his head nodding in time to the rousing music.
At the end, Dudamel jumps up and shakes the hands of all the musicians in the front row. “Bravo! You know I played in an orchestra like you. Listening to you I was remembering and it was a lot of fun. I was making a lot of mistakes but I was having a lot of fun.”
One of the young musicians, a violinist, asks: “When you are conducting, is it hard?” “Playing the violin is hard, conducting is easy,” Dudamel answers. “Everything has a complexity, but if you do what you love you can conquer everything.”
Jan. 8, 2:32 p.m., Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School of the Arts, Trenton. As the Trenton Central High School Orchestra tunes up on the auditorium stage, Reed Gusciora, mayor of Trenton, welcomes Dudamel.
The orchestra launches into a tribute to Aretha Franklin. In between pieces, Dudamel takes questions from the audience of Trenton politicians, educators and students. He encourages the students not to compare themselves to others, but rather to believe in themselves and enjoy the music. “In the orchestra, you learn how to listen to each other. What a beautiful world we would have if we all listened to each other.”
Suddenly, Dudamel says he wants to play. Someone produces a violin, he settles his chair next to one of the violinists and jumps in for a medley from “Phantom of the Opera.”
Peeking into Princeton’s hidden gems
Jan. 9, 11 a.m. Princeton University Chapel. The booming chords of “Cortège Académique” by Canadian composer Ernest MacMillan, performed by University organist Eric Plutz, resound under the vaulted ceiling.
Dudamel sits in one of the pews. The Chapel Choir, directed by Penna Rose, sings “Come thou fount of every blessing,” Robert Robinson’s 18th-century hymn. As soon as the choir finishes, Dudamel rushes up to talk to them. “I don’t want to leave this place,” he says. “I am so touched.”
Across the plaza, in Princeton University Library’s Scheide Library, Dudamel views rare manuscripts including a Beethoven sketchbook.
Leading Dudamel’s second campus tour, Dasha Koltunyuk, a 2015 alumna and marketing and outreach manager for the Department of Music and Princeton University Concerts, makes a stop on the way to the Princeton University Art Museum.
A few weeks later, Koltunyuk shared one of her favorite moments from the tour. “I showed Maestro Dudamel a [copy of a] photo of Martin Luther King Jr. taken after his 1960 sermon on universal brotherhood at the chapel as we passed the location where the photo was taken,” she said. “I will never forget the excitement in Maestro Dudamel's eyes as history came alive before us, and the clear awe that he — someone who strives for universal brotherhood through music — holds for Reverend King.”
Master class: ‘Don’t be afraid!’
Jan. 9, 2:52 p.m., Lee Rehearsal Room, Lewis Arts complex. The warm cacophony of the 100-plus members of the Princeton University Orchestra tuning up suddenly quiets as Dudamel enters for a master class with three students who are studying conducting in the Program in Musical Performance.
Junior Reilly Bova steps onto the podium to conduct “March to the Scaffold,” the fourth movement from “Symphonie fantastique” by Berlioz.
The piece begins with the crash of loud timpani, the swell of violins, then the brass dives in. As Bova conducts, Dudamel stands to the side, instinctively moving his right hand. Bova, his arms moving vigorously, ushers in each section of the orchestra energetically to the end.
Looking at the percussion section, Dudamel asks, “What happens with the timpani in the beginning? Do it a little slower, have the clarity of those 12 notes. What is the dynamic? Pianissimo mysterioso. If it’s too fast, then I can’t hear the pianissimo.”
He stops again, hums the melody. “To make the pianissimo sound more intense than the fortissimo is the thing. Then, the effect is better. Hey, my friend! Try it!” The orchestra launches in.
“Let’s go to 53. That moment is huge,” Dudamel says, emitting a long, low growl to mimic the bass tones. He and Bova conduct in sync. “You have to fight to be alive!” Dudamel exclaims, shaking his arms, his body electric with the music.
Later, Bova gushed: “That was the 20 greatest minutes of my life!”
Changing lives, one child at a time
Jan. 9, 4:32 p.m., McCosh Hall, Room 10. The January visit closes with a panel discussion about El Sistema led by Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs, Woodrow Wilson School. Dudamel, Lou Chen and Anne Fitzgibbon, a 1998 graduate alumna and founder of the Harmony Program in New York City, share their experiences and take questions from a packed audience.
A few weeks later, Katz, who is also director of Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, reflected: “For me the Dudamel visit has been a special thrill. Meeting Dudamel was a chance to shake the hand and bend the ear of history come alive.”
For Chen, the experience has been unforgettable. “Maestro Dudamel’s parting words to me were, ‘Keep doing the amazing work you're doing.’ This, coming from the global champion of accessible music education — I felt like I had been infused with new energy. And I have no intention of letting him down. He has leveraged his musical talent to uplift children across the world. There's no reason we students can't do the same.”
Dudamel returns to Princeton April 22-28. Details online.