This Sunday, a landmark composition of the 20th century will be webcast by NPR, and led by the quintessential 21st century conductor: 31-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, who will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Dudamel spoke about his experience of this earthshaking piece with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.
Dudamel says he has a "very special and beautiful" history with Stravinsky's music. "My father was playing in the Lara [Venezuela] Symphony Orchestra," he explains, "and I went to the concert. It was shocking music — and not in a bad way. I was really impressed. My energy, I remember, because I was like 8 years old — it was very physical. And then when I was a teenager, they invited me to play with this Lara Symphony Orchestra, with their youth orchestra. I was conducting the children in this youth orchestra [in the Rite]." (Astonishingly, Dudamel was invited to begin conducting the youth orchestra at age 13.)
"This was the most amazing experience," he recalls. "I was playing this crazy music — difficult to count, really strange to read — but immediately it became a challenge for me. I've conducted it a lot after that. It's a piece that is part of my musical life."
One thing that is often said of Dudamel is that he conducts music as if it had just been composed, without regard for what one critic termed "the accretions of past performances."
But that's part of the Rite's magic, the conductor says. "It's a hundred years later," he says, "and it's still so modern. Still, Sacre is new all the time. For me, that is the secret of the piece. I love to bring every line up. Sometimes, you listen to something very horizontal, but when you see the music in a vertical way — I'm talking about the line, every line in the orchestration — it's amazing. You discover new colors, you discover, 'Oh look, this is a very traditional harmony,' but then you see the details — and then every time it's different. I'm sure that this version will be completely different to the last one that I did.
"I think that the Rite is a symbol of the beginning of life," Dudamel continues. "It's beautiful because it's so natural. Of course, you have these crazy moments of wild dynamics, but at the same time you feel that the rhythms and the melodies are so natural. They're like this ancestral feeling of ... 'Wow, I think I have belief.' "
Still, The Rite of Spring was written 99 years ago. Is classical music still capable of shocking people — especially young people? "Absolutely," Dudamel says. "It's the way you offer music to the people. If you offer a routine — and I'm not saying we have to jump or scream, or we have to change completely the score, because we're playing exactly the same notes — but the only thing is that we have to avoid a routine. We have to play always 150 percent."
Dudamel grew up in a musical family. Not only did his father play in the orchestra, but his mother was a singer. He was also nurtured by Venezuela's famed national music program, popularly nicknamed El Sistema (The System), which inspired Dudamel to create a similar initiative in Los Angeles. So what's the pitch to kids in L.A.?
"It's the same music," the conductor says. "I think every kid would love to play an instrument, or to know how to play an instrument. Everybody listens to music, any kind of music: pop, folk, classical, whatever. Music is always around — it's part of us, part of our feelings. It's natural."
But even if the pop music Californian kids hear is a lot more simple and predictable in its rhythms and harmonies than The Rite of Spring, Dudamel says all music is shared: "All music is coming from folk music, the music our ancestors were doing, that became classical music, the dances, the jazz, now the rock, pop, Latin, music coming from Africa. All music is one, in different ways. They are completely different from each other, but at the same time they are only one. It's music."