This evening’s concert is Russian music – Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky – do you feel a particular affinity for Russian music?
My teacher was a great lover of Russian Music and that was imbued in me, particularly the music of Tchaikovsky. Russian music is full of emotion and sentiment and that’s one of the things that really attracts me to it.
Did you start with an ambition to be a conductor, or did you start as a musician and then move into conducting?
It was a bit of a coincidence - my love of conducting began when I was 8 years old and my grandmother gave me a conductor’s baton, so I had the desire to conduct from a very early age, but I didn’t get the chance until a conductor was unavailable and I stepped in. I conducted the Philharmonia a lot when I was 8 or 9, but only on their recordings!
You played the violin – did you play in orchestras?
Yes, I was the concert master when I first got to conduct. The conductor was taken ill and I took over conducting the orchestra as a joke, but the bosses decided that it wasn’t a joke and that I could be a serious conductor!
So at what age did you conduct your first orchestral concert?
And what did you conduct?
My own concerto for Trombone, some renaissance string pieces, Respighi and Mozart’s divertimento in D major.
Have you continued with your composition?
I’m so busy at the moment that I haven’t really had time, but I still have the drive within me to compose, so I hope to find the days and weeks necessary to compose some more. I do write very short extracts when I get a moment, but I haven’t worked them into full pieces yet.
Did you come from a musical family?
Yes, my father plays the trombone and my mother sings.
And you’ve composed for the trombone – have you composed for any other instruments.
Sometimes I don’t know where my music is – I’ve composed for all sorts of instruments. Between 12 and 15 I was so fascinated by composing I wrote for the whole orchestra and beyond – symphonic music, a violin concerto, a flute concerto…lots!
Let me ask you about preparing for this concert – the pieces being performed this evening are all quite well known and have been recorded by many conductors and orchestras – do you listen to these recordings and do they influence your interpretation?
Some conductors are completely closed to the idea of learning from other interpretations, but I think it’s my duty to learn from every possible source. By expanding the experience of listening to other versions of a piece my own version will improve as well.
The Prokofiev 3rd piano concerto is a wonderful brash and dramatic piece of music, with an incredibly beautiful second movement – what appeals to you about this piece in particular?
I think Prokofiev has a really youthful quality and energy which makes it very exciting music. You can’t keep still listening to Prokofiev – the excitement comes from the virtuosity of the piano part and also the fact that the conductor has to be doing many things at once – it’s a very energetic role for me.
How do you work out how to co-operate with the soloist in a piece like the Prokofiev? Surely they might have different views on the piece to you sometimes?
Working with Nikolai there’s such an understanding – he’s a true musician and the connection is just automatic with him, so there’s no problem.
I’ve only just met you, but you strike me as being a very confident person – do you get nervous before a concert like this evening?
I’m nervous now! No, seriously, the experience of doing something that you love so much is so enjoyable that there’s no reason to get nervous.
But before you even get to the concert you have to meet the orchestra, who can be difficult to work with (Not the Philharmonia!) and who are a group of highly talented musicians – do you get nervous before meeting an Orchestra?
It’s like meeting a woman…. When I met my wife everything was so easy, so I look at meeting a new orchestra in the same way I don’t get nervous. They’re both pleasurable experiences… so there are no nerves involved.
So we’re in at the start of a beautiful new relationship here?
I’m very fortunate in always being able to work with extremely open, welcoming orchestras. The Philharmonia Orchestra was one of the first major orchestras I had the privilege of working with and the experience with them has been so good that I don’t get nervous.
Are there any orchestras that you’d like to conduct that you haven’t already conducted?
I’d like to conduct them all! Each orchestra has a different personality and is like a different friend, but you meet your friends over your lifetime so there’s no rush.
You won the Bamberg conducting competition two years ago – how important are competitions and how much does it influence your career?
I don’t very often go in for competitions because to be judged over three days is not always helpful and it can often happen that you perform well on the first day and not so well on the second. Notwithstanding that I’ve been very fortunate to win because it opens all kinds of doors, and gives me such great opportunities.
The whole setup for the Bamberg competition – the organisers, orchestras, and judges – was so good that all of the competitors felt supported by the event and the experience was very positive because the atmosphere was so good. I didn’t feel it was a competition at all – there was no competitive spirit. It felt like a joint venture – it was a magical experience.
How does classical music fit into the musical life of Venezuela?
One of the greatest things about Venezuela is the amount of classical music and in particular the number of youth orchestras. There are 250,000 young people playing in 140 youth orchestras and 125 children’s orchestras. It’s a social project as well as an artistic one – playing music is a major leisure time activity in Venezuela – it’s giving them an education in their spare time.
So what do you think can offer to young people?
All art forms are special and just as you can stand and appreciate a piece of art in a gallery you can appreciate music. But music is different in that it’s not something that you can see but something you feel – it feeds the soul. In Venezuela there are lots of problems with drugs and other social problems which music takes young people away from and at the same time teaches them a sense of co-operation, teamwork and being involved in a common project that is positive. Music is all about harmony, but it’s not just about harmony of the music itself, it’s the need for harmony in the people who play the music together.
I’m really looking forward to the performances, thank you so much for speaking to us.
Gustavo Dudamel was speaking to John Florence.
Translation by Professor Mark Allison, Head of Spanish at the University of Leicester.
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