Gustavo Dudamel, the classical music superstar conductor, has been a quiet presence in Trenton over the past few months.
But the volume will be turned up when the superstar conductor — affectionately known as “The Dude” — presents a free concert at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, April 27.
Dudamel comes to Trenton via Princeton University, where he is the first ever conductor in residence
While that is noteworthy in itself; Dudamel expanded his residency by insisting on his involvement with Trenton Public School music students and the Trenton Music Makers.
The latter partners with the Trenton School System and uses El Sistema tactics — something dear to the Venezuelan-born musician who traces his early music education to the program.
Now an international classical music star, Dudamel has a resume that includes leading several of the world’s greatest symphonic orchestras as well as a youth orchestra during the 2016 Super Bowl.
The residency commemorates the Princeton University Concerts’ 125th anniversary — a cultural achievement of its own.
El Sistema — “the system” in English — was founded in 1975 in Venezuela by the late Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and educator.
Calling it “a social system that fights poverty,” Abreu had a vision of bringing students together to create both music and better community.
“Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values — solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion,” noted Abreu, who died in 2018. “And it has the ability to unite an entire community and to express sublime feelings.”
Believing “music produces an irreversible transformation in a child,” Abreu said the effects of participating in El Sistema go beyond the playing and that involvement doesn’t mean the participant will end up as a professional musician. He or she “may become a doctor or study law or teach literature. What music gives him or her remains indelibly part of who they are forever.”
The successful program that has students actively engaged in playing classical music eventually gained the support of all Venezuelan governments, regardless of political positions. By 2015 the program had become worldwide, encompassing 400 music centers and 700,000 young people.
Now 38, Dudamel, born six years after El Sistema was created, participated in the system and is one of its most prominent proponents.
“I studied music since I was four years old, and from that moment I became part of a family,” he said in a statement for an El Sistema event at Carnegie Hall. “And that family has taught me things; not only musical things, but things I have to face in life, and that is where the success of the system lies.”
In addition to his El Sistema activities, Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar.
Reached by e-mail, Dudamel explains his decision to include Trenton in his Princeton visit. “For me,” he says, “art can never exist in a vacuum — music is about building bridges and making connections between cultures, generations, institutions, and social groups.”
Drawing on what he calls “music’s unique power to unite,” he is delighted by music’s appeal beyond the university. Particularly gratifying for him was El Sistema’s discovery of young people whose lives were affected every day by their new musical horizons.
In addition to his own devotion to music, Dudamel is constantly surprised by the lure of music for young people. “I feel the power of music,” he says, “but still it moves me whenever I see young people playing music with such love and dedication. Their working together to create beauty never fails to inspire me.”
Dudamel considers his visit to New Jersey a turning point. “It feels like we have taken a first step in bringing Princeton University and the grass-roots music programs of Trenton closer together. I look forward to helping develop a sustainable, mutually enriching bridge between these neighboring communities,” he says.
Carol Burden, executive director of Trenton Music Makers, established in 1998, is in concert with Dudamel’s ideas and reports on his recent involvement with Trenton students.
“When the kids went to play for him, they were nervous because they knew he was important,” Burden says. “After they played, he beamed ear-to- ear, and said, ‘Wonderful! Isn’t this fun? Play more!’ The kids played everything they had prepared, then they played old pieces. His message was ‘This is special, do more!’”
“What was delightful to us was Dudamel’s own delight in being there,” Burden adds.
The Trenton Music Makers is a free community-supported program that includes a preschool group and an orchestra involving 105 students from fourth grade to high school. Students are recruited within the Trenton Public School through site coordinators and principals or by providing information to parents at Back-to-School nights.
In addition to playing within the schools, the Trenton musicians also will perform with 300 other El Sistema players at Princeton University’s Alexander Hall on Sunday, April 28. More details below.
Musicologist Don Michael Randel evoked Dudamel’s capacity for delight during a public interview shortly after Dudamel’s arrival in Princeton. Randel, a Princeton alumnus, is, incidentally president emeritus of both the University of Chicago and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“I wanted to play trombone like my father,” Dudamel told Randel in the public event, “but my arm was too short. I studied solfege and harmony, and waited to get taller so I could play trombone.”
“As a child, I played toy instruments. I never thought I’d be a classical musician. Someone gave us a ukulele, and my father saw that I was keeping the rhythm. I tried trumpet, but didn’t like it because it was painful. I wanted a viola.”
Regarding his start with El Sistema, Dudamel said. “I didn’t want to be taught anything. I wanted to explore and discover.” He considers that attitude desirable because it creates room to contemplate and understand.
As a conductor, he had his first adventures without a teacher. “My toys were my first orchestras,” he said. “My first orchestras were Vienna and Chicago,” Dudamel said, talking about leading recordings of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” as a youngster.
“I conducted my first real orchestra from the violin section. The conductor was late. I moved my hand and we started to play.”
The conductor, in Dudamel’s view, inspires and motivates players by gaining their respect. He has the power but must cultivate respect.
Additionally, he said, “Some conductors impose and are arrogant, rather than gaining respect. Instrumentalists tend to smell blood when conductors impose. Conducting different orchestras is like dancing with different partners; you cannot impose yourself — your partner may not be following your beat.”
“When a conductor really connects with musicians it’s a miracle. The music may have been composed 200 years ago, but it is always new. Conducting is the best thing in the world.”
Dudamel considers music a powerful instrument of social change. Indeed, he believes that changing the perception of classical music by school children can have a long-term effect on society. “In my school music was the last and least important class,” he says. To the contrary, he believes that if children are raised to understand music’s beauty and creativity, music can become a means of social change.
Dudamel is an enemy of the widespread idea that music can be boring. “When I think of exposing young people to music, I don’t believe in boredom,” he said. “I love Latin music. I like classics. I like Pink Floyd. I like the Beatles. I don’t believe in tradition and putting music in a box. We have to destroy that box.”
His Trenton appearance may be just another removal of those bricks in the wall separating a new generation and classical music.
Gustavo Dudamel in conversation with Fintan O’Toole, “The Artist in Society,” Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Thursday, April 25, 8 p.m. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609-258-2800.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Princeton University Orchestra and Princeton University Glee Club, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m. $15 to $45. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609 258-2800.
Program repeats at Patriots Theater, Trenton War Memorial, 1 War Memorial Drive. Saturday, April 27, 4 p.m. Free ticket required. 609-984-8484.
El Sistema Festival Performance, 300 players and singers hosted by Trenton Music Makers during Communiversity. Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, April 28, 3 p.m. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609 258-2800.
For more information on the Trenton Music Makers or to make a donation, visit www.trentonmusicmakers.org.
This story was originally published in the April 2019 Trenton Downtowner.