Growing up as a young musician in Venezuela learning under his maestro José Antonio Abreú at El Sistema, Gustavo Dudamel realized early in his career the importance of using music to advance social and humanitarian issues.
Dudamel, who made his debut with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 and five years later was also named music and artistic director, is bringing everything he learned from his maestro about music as an element of social change and the importance of inclusion to the Power to the People! festival, which kicked off Thursday and runs through April 11.
The fest, which celebrates the role artists play in activism, will feature concerts with musicians of every genre, including artists like Residente and Patti Smith, workshops and other activities that will take place at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and venues across the city. See the events calendar here.
The launch of Power to the People! fest is among Dudamel’s major personal and professional accomplishments, which include a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, two Grammy Awards, founding the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles inspired by his own music institution El Sistema, and launching the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation to expand access to music and the arts to young people.
“The kids who dream of having a better world give me hope,” Dudamel, who joined his first orchestra at the age of 13, tells Billboard. “It sounds very simple but to see those dreams dream through music, that gives me hope. But the most important thing is to create spaces for them to have access to beauty.”
Below, Dudamel talks about the first-ever Power to the People! fest, reflects on 15 years with the LA Phil and the grand opening of the fifth Youth Orchestra Los Angeles facility in Inglewood, Calif.
The fest will feature a variety of renowned musicians, activists and artists, like Patti Smith and Residente. How did the list come about?
In these years, we have transformed the concept of a symphonic and philharmonic institution trying to embrace the entire community. This is one of the things that for me, since I became music and artistic director of the LA Phil, has been a motto. I want to go to the audiences that don’t have connection or access to our world. And, I think in this process, we’re doing different projects with wonderful artists so we came up with this idea to have a more powerful voice through the music. Talking with Herbie Hancock (L.A. Phil creative chair for jazz), who has been part of our family, we’re trying to combine all of these [artists] and not to put walls or borders between the music.
Power to the People! is a fest that in a way gives others a platform to make their voice heard … When did you find your voice and why did you want to offer a platform for others?
Music is a very powerful language because it’s a universal language. You don’t have to speak in a specific language from a country to understand or to feel music. Let’s not forget that culture is the identity of the people. It’s not that culture is an entertainment side of humanity it’s part of our identity. When we try to find that identity through the union of all the kinds of artists, it’s the best way because then the voice is a choir and not a soloist. It becomes a choir of people sending a message. I found my language in music ever since I became a musician as a child. This has been my voice to express what I feel and to connect with other people that say something through that. Don’t forget this, the action of a concert is not only the people that are on the stage, it’s also the people listening to the music in the audience. That energy gets transformed with the music and that energy goes back to the stage. This interaction is very powerful. That is our voice.
Residente performs at the festival on Saturday. What can people expect from that collaboration?
This is a dream for me. We did something together years ago with the song “Latinoamérica.” I have been a fan of Residente for many years and I think his message through his lyrics is so powerful and you feel so identified with his language. For the two of us, it’s an amazing opportunity again to work together again and to give a different dimension to his music and to the artistry of the Philharmonic. It’s a beautiful dialogue and his powerful poetry is unique. His lyrics get into our soul and that is beautiful. I’m looking forward, he’s a brother and to work with him, you can imagine what a pleasure that is.
At the end of the year, a new Youth Orchestra Los Angeles facility will be opening in Inglewood. What does this accomplishment mean to you?
This started as a dream. My first wish was to bring the program from where I come from which is El Sistema in Venezuela. That was for me a priority in the planning of my tenure as the music and artistic director of the L.A. Phil. It happened because this board of the orchestra and the this institution believed in the power of music as a tool to transform society and the community. This space is where we will share dreams. This space will be for the community, for everybody. It will be a place with an amazing level, a place to dignify this youth that sometimes doesn’t have an identity, doesn’t have a place in society and that is the most important thing. The culture for poor people cannot be a poor culture so the concept of giving them the best spaces, the best instruments, giving them the best opportunities is the best way for them to build the dreams.
You made your debut with the LA Phil in 2005 at the Hollywood Bowl and later became the orchestra’s music and artistic director. In retrospective, what are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud about expanding the family and that is what is happening. From being an institution, doing great concerts and having a great level to fully embracing the community. It’s beautiful to know that the community feels reflected in our culture at the LA Phil. It’s a slow transformation but it is happening and people in L.A. will be able to identify with our world. That’s the most beautiful. That people realize that this is their music.
You just extended your contract. What do you have yet to do with the LA Phil and in your career overall?
I consider myself still a young person but there are so many things every day that challenge us. Especially doing music. I keep studying and dreaming to do things in a special way. And I’m very proud of the orchestra and its musicians because they are playing at such a level and they’re so committed with all of our programs, I’m so proud of the entire institution. We have many things to grow, like spreading that hug, embracing more people. Through the Disney Hall, Hollywood Bowl and now we have the Ford Theatre to spread programming with the community. I love what I do. I love to be a conductor. I’m challenged all the time. When you read a book again, there are new things that you see or feel from the same book and that doesn’t have an end. I see myself doing, dreaming and living through the music I’ve been doing since I was a young boy.
How has classical music evolved from when you began?
We have done the classics like Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to premiering new pieces. It’s very important to give space to young composers, to have the chance to work with amazing artists that in your life never dreamed to work with. Like with Coldplay, Tony Bennett, Rubén Blades, Katy Perry, Café Tacvba, Juanes, we don’t have borders. These borders have been built because of tradition but tradition kills the desire to build new ways, new roads. At the end, working with all of these great artists, having collaborations with so many artists that we work with, that is why I’m so happy and we’re in the right place to give the right message.