Connecting with Dudamel

Holding an open rehearsal with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, the famed conductor of the LA Phil encouraged musicians to think beyond their instruments.

By Cherie Hu '17

Like many of us, Gustavo Dudamel, the internationally acclaimed conductor who serves both as music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and as music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, loves to sing in the shower.

To the Venezuelan native, however, shower singing is more than a quotidian act: It reveals insights into how we engage with classical music, and what we forget in the absence of careful, thoughtful analysis. “The only things we remember in the shower are these soaring, beautiful melodies,” he said. “We would never think of singing the background accompaniment, but just because it’s a secondary line doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have personality.”

Dudamel demonstrated his acuity in unpacking these overlooked voices and interlocking parts in classical music on Nov. 6 in Lowell Lecture Hall, where he led the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra through an open rehearsal of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. The rehearsal provided a healthy dose of technical expertise to the Harvard undergraduate community ahead of The Creative Class, Dudamel’s leadership-oriented talk with Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on Monday, 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7 in Sanders Theatre. The Learning From Performers event is co-sponsored by The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, and is free and open to the public, but requires ticketing

Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducted the HRO in an open rehearsal. Photo: Cherie Hu '17
Most members of the HRO recognize Gustavo Dudamel not through face-to-face encounters, but rather through his popular YouTube videos, including his iconic Bolívar Orchestra performance of Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Sunday’s rehearsal painted a contrasting picture, as the conductor abandoned his performative flamboyance for a more serious and restrained yet equally precise and effective style, which fit the tone of the piece at hand.

Shostakovich’s No. 5 had its first premiere nearly 80 years ago in Leningrad, Russia, and received an overwhelmingly positive public response, including a standing ovation that reportedly lasted more than half an hour. The historical context leading up to this piece is more troublesome; many of Shostakovich’s previous works had been criticized for being too chaotic and complex, and the Russian government pressured the composer to simplify his music to fit more traditional, socialist musical ideals. The 5th would be the first piece he wrote that complied with these pressures.

With an energy that was both endless and exacting, Dudamel brought out this emotional conflict in the symphony. “To me, this movement makes me think about Shostakovich holding his anger,” Dudamel told the orchestra. “He no longer had the possibility to be free to do whatever he wanted.”

After conducting the HRO in a run-through of the first movement, Dudamel honed in on the first page of the score: a simple yet harrowing dialogue between the violins and lower strings, catapulted by a mere 32nd note. In his eyes, bringing out the aggression and suffering in this first note is not solely about accenting the written music, but also about amplifying the silence that precedes it.

“We often focus so much on the sound we make, but the tension doesn’t start in the music,” said Dudamel, before pointing to the tip of his baton. “It starts here.” The key to building suspense and conveying emotion from the start, he said, is rooted in details as minuscule yet fundamental as a flick of a wrist. He spent nearly 15 minutes solely on these first few measures, refining the precision of each individual entrance and training the orchestra to react swiftly to his movements.

Throughout the rehearsal, Dudamel continued to challenge the student musicians to think beyond the physical constraints of their instruments. When the first violins played their soaring melodies, Dudamel encouraged them to transcend the fragments created by physical bow strokes and the bar lines in the score. “Don’t use your bow as a phrasing tool,” he said. “Imagine that this entire melody lies on just one bow stroke. It’s all the same line.”

He applied his ear for consistent, sustained energy not only to shaping the violins’ melodies, but also to strengthening the underlying rhythmic skeleton upheld by the violas, cellos and basses. With his shower-singing mentality in mind, he reminded the orchestra that there should be no direct correlation between volume and energy; if anything, quieter voices and passages should feel even more electrifying. “The dynamic pp [pianissimo] actually stands for ‘power power,’” he said. Later he used a culinary metaphor to demand more expression: “Right now, there’s no ham or cheese, only bread.”

Dudamel understands, however, that there is only so much a conductor can accomplish. The key to an effective performance is not simply about the orchestra following the maestro’s commands as a single unit, but also about the orchestra members themselves reaching a consensus on how the music should be played.

To this end, Dudamel frequently asked the HRO members for opinions on vibrato, dynamic markings, bow changes and other technical interpretive matters, ensuring that the rehearsal was interactive rather than one-directional. Particularly with Shostakovich’s 5th, he said, “the only way to create intensity is to connect with each other.”