‘The Dude” is always up to something.
Yet Gustavo Dudamel, one of classical music’s busiest and most charismatic musicians, has managed to find room in his over-stuffed schedule to visit Princeton on Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2. It will be the first of three such visits that will comprise the first ever artistic residency of Princeton University Concerts, now celebrating its 125th year.
Dudamel will return January 7 through 9 and April 22 through 28. The residency will culminate in the spring in a free concert with the much-in-demand conductor leading the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club at the Trenton War Memorial.
The residency will include talks and panels, community and educational events, films, and interdisciplinary exhibits exploring “the relationship between music and the world around us.” There will also be performances by, among others, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic — the orchestra Dudamel has directed since 2009 — as well as young musicians of El Sistema related programs.
El Sistema, of course, is Venezuela’s world famous music education program. Founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, Dudamel’s conducting teacher, the program has been promoted as a means of imbuing the lives of young people, especially those in impoverished circumstances, with purpose, hope, and beauty. In this sense, it has been as much a social service as a cultural one. El Sistema’s motto is “Music for Social Change.” Dudamel has been a proponent of both the philosophy and the development of El Sistema-inspired programs, as will be reflected in his residency.
Dudamel himself is El Sistema’s most visible success story. While his rise seems meteoric, it has been a lifetime in the making. Born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in 1981, to musical parents — his father was a trombonist and his mother taught voice — he entered El Sistema, taking up the violin at 10, and soon thereafter began studying composition. He attended the Jacinto Lara Conservatory and the Latin-American Violin Academy. In 1995 he turned to conducting. Before long he was appointed to his first music directorship — of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra in Caracas. He took charge of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, the national youth orchestra of Venezuela, while still in his teens.
Winner of the 2004 Gustav Mahler Competition, held in Bamberg, Germany, Dudamel has conducted many of the world’s great orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony.
He was invited to conduct at the Vatican to celebrate Pope Benedict XVI’s 80th birthday in 2007. The same year he was appointed music director of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. In 2009 he was named music director in L.A. In 2012 he conducted an all-“penguin” choir on Sesame Street. In 2015, during a recording session for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” John Williams offered him the baton so that he could lead the main title music on the film’s soundtrack. In 2016 he performed at the Super Bowl, alongside Coldplay, Chris Martin, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars. In 2017 he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in its traditional New Year’s Day Concert — at 35, becoming the youngest conductor ever to do so.
In honor of his cultural achievements, and because of his marriage to actress Maria Valverde, he is now a Spanish citizen. Somewhere along the way, perhaps inevitably, he acquired the nickname “The Dude.”
Even among conductors, Dudamel stands apart for his exceptional ability to motivate and inspire. This weekend’s Princeton events will include performances by Afro-Venezuelan folk singer Betsayda Machado, cuatro/mandolin virtuoso Jorge Glem, and friends; mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo and Quartet 212, made up of principal players of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; students from the El Sistema-inspired Boston String Academy; and two public discussions with Dudamel about art, education, and social change — one with musicologist Don Michael Randel, and the other with New York Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda.
The opening celebration — the discussion with Randel and the concert with Machado and Glem — will take place at Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, December 1, at 8 and 9 p.m., respectively. Admission is free. For a complete schedule, visit www.music.princeton.edu/events/dudamel-residency.
Despite an over-crammed schedule, Dudamel participated in an email interview in advance of his first Princeton appearance.
What made Princeton an attractive location for a residency?
First of all, it’s one of the most heralded universities in the world, and it is a great honor to be invited. Also, I love how Princeton has always integrated the arts and academics purposefully, understanding that the arts are part of a complete education. And from what I know and what I have been told, the university boasts the most engaged and intellectually curious students, so we will all be learning from each other!
What are you hoping to accomplish in working with the public, with college students, and with younger students in El Sistema-inspired programs?
I believe that music unites us — young and old, rich and poor, no matter where we come from. My deepest hope is that through this residency experience, we will all learn and grow together; that we will collectively draw attention to the arts and arts education; and that we can have some fun along the way.
How important was it for you to include young musicians in the programs?
I am of course extremely excited to work with the young musicians of Princeton University — with the student orchestra, the choir, and the talented students in the faculty of music. Above and beyond that, it was very important to me to involve young people from beyond the campus in this residency program. In every country and city I visit, I see so many outstanding programs and dedicated teachers engaged in projects bringing young people to music. I want to encourage these young musicians to follow their dreams. Visiting Princeton can inspire them, just as their enthusiasm, exuberance and honesty can inspire us.
What themes and topics were you interested in exploring when putting together the programs?
I think the themes we have crafted for my visit showcase what I believe to be the most important topics to discuss: 1) art, education, and social change, 2) art and faith, 3) art and nature. It’s a thorough, 360-degree look at major issues of our times, reflected through the prism of music.
How do the musical selections underscore the themes you plan to address?
Our programs feature music by composers whose lives were intertwined with the winds of social change, and who were inspired by themes of faith and nature: Haydn lived from the Enlightenment through the French Revolution and transformed music with his development of the symphony and the string quartet. When Verdi died in 1901, all the shops in Milan closed for three days of mourning. These composers both reflected and left lasting impressions on their societies. Arvo Part’s music is deeply influenced by Baltic traditions of spirituality; Mozart’s perfect music is memorably described by Salieri in the film “Amadeus” as “the voice of God.” Schubert and Wagner were a pair of musical “naturalists” — evoking moving portraits of nature in sound. In addition, we have commissioned three composers associated with Princeton University to write new works for our chamber programs, each reflecting on aspects of our themes.
The panel discussion topics range from “the artist in society” to “art and nature” to “social change.” Why do you feel it was important to make these issues a part of your residency?
These are not theoretical discussions; I believe art can teach us many things about ourselves and about the world around us, and it is important for artists to reflect upon the relevance of what we do. The arts provide a forum for people from various walks of life to discover common ground. I know many doctors, architects, physicists, or athletes — people who otherwise have very little in common — who all share a passion for music. And their different perspectives enrich my appreciation for music. By giving our programs a thematic focus we are inviting a discussion of what art can teach us about the world, and what the world can teach us about art.
What are you most looking forward to during your time in Princeton?
It is such an exciting program of activities. In my life as a conductor, I meet so many different people and experience so many different impressions of the world. What this residency offers is a rare opportunity to bring all these diverse points of contact together: friends and colleagues from many disciplines, all woven together into a kind of personal, creative, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, and educational tapestry. So to choose one highlight of what I am most looking forward to would be impossible. It’s like listening to an orchestra — many different voices all coming together in one beautiful expression.
Can you comment on some of your experiences coming up through El Sistema in Venezuela?
El Sistema was the foundation of my career and in many ways remains the foundation of my life. Growing up in Venezuela, I never had access to the kind of scholastic education like Princeton offers, but through El Sistema, I found a mentor in Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, who believed in me and taught me to understand the connection between music and the world — the power of music to change the world. El Sistema gave me a sense of community, family, and the tools to create beauty together. It taught me respect and universal human values — not just to be a good musician, but to strive to become a good citizen of the world.
Opening Celebration of Dudamel Residency, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, December 1. Public discussion between Gustavo Dudamel and Don Michael Randel, 8 p.m., and concert by Afro-Venezuelan folk music singer Betsayda Machado, 9 p.m. Free. Tickets limited. For more information: www.music.princeton.edu/events/dudamel-residency.