After such a strong introduction, Borda kept her eyes trained on Dudamel’s rising star as he performed around the globe. She brought him back for “a series of absolutely triumphant concerts” in January 2007 and then offered him the position of music director soon after.
“People often ask me if it was a risk,” she says. “It was never a risk. I’ve never seen a talent like that. It’s something that happens once in a hundred years.”
DURING BORDA’S efforts to woo Dudamel, she traveled to Venezuela to see what all the fuss was about at El Sistema. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. “I resolved at that time, whether or not we signed Gustavo, that we had to start something like that here in LA.”
And that’s where the happy Hollywood ending comes in. Granted, there have been a lot of happy outcomes to Dudamel’s story, such as when he married his longtime girlfriend, ballet dancer and journalist Eloísa Maturén, and moved to an idyllic home in the Hollywood Hills. Or when Pink’s hot dog stand, a Los Angeles institution, added the Dudamel Dog to its menu.
But the most wide-reaching happy ending was the launch of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles music educational initiative in the fall of 2007. YOLA blossomed out of Borda’s desire to create a youth music program like the one she witnessed in action in Venezuela, and it was helped along greatly by Dudamel, who was solidifying his relationship with the city and the LA Phil at about the same time. Now Dudamel works with the program’s 300 children participants whenever his busy schedule allows. There’s not much difference in his approach when it comes to the pint-size musicians — he still steps down from his podium to laugh, comment and encourage. In everything he does, he spreads the good word about classical music and tries to recruit new participants.
“He’s a master teacher with our orchestra and our kids,” says Gretchen Nielsen, director of educational initiatives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. “He holds really, really high standards and expectations, but it’s with this extraordinary love and care and joy around it.”
Dudamel becomes more animated than usual when he discusses the possibilities that lie ahead for the program.
“We have good conditions here to create the thing of El Sistema,” he says. “The change is already really big. Not just the musical level, but in the social part of what they’re doing. Our goal in the next three years is to have three more orchestras and to have thousands and thousands of children.”
The maestro says he sees himself in his young charges. Working with them reminds him of the days when he was just a boy, learning to play the violin in his hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela. “The other day I was rehearsing with them,” he says, “and we were playing a piece that I played a lot [as a child], and I said to them, ‘You know, I was once sitting like you in a children’s orchestra. I remember when I was dreaming and working.’ ”
Dudamel now finds himself enjoying the many fruits of that labor. But his eyes are still big, and his smile is still wide — only the location has changed.
“I love to sit in my garden and to see the sky, how blue it is,” he says of his new home in the Hollywood Hills. “Like in Venezuela. I love that. I am a very simple man.”
He bears no overt signs of his lofty status in the world of classical music, despite the fact that, for a while, he used the very baton once wielded by conducting great Bernstein. “I used it, but I broke it,” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “But now I have his vest. The family of Bernstein gave me the vest. It’s a little big, fat. I need more years to improve my belly.”
Since arriving in Los Angeles, his belly might be the only area in which Gustavo Dudamel has come up short.