September 24, 2018

Dudamel, Israel: A Love Story

Watch a video of Gustavo Dudamel with the Israeli Philharmic at the bottom of this page

With Gustavo Dudamel taking the podium this weekend at Disney Hall as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new music director, Los Angeles is embracing the Venezuelan prodigy as a perfect catch. But even at 28 he is well traveled, and has already had a love affair with Israel.

Just minutes after Hezbollah rockets fell on Haifa during the 2006 war with Lebanon, Dudamel took his place before the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), lifted his baton and conducted the orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. There’s a photo in an online IPO newsletter showing Dudamel and his wife toasting the orchestra’s 70th anniversary. And when it came time for the Israel Phil to pick a conductor to lead the ensemble on its American tour last year to honor Israel’s 60th anniversary, Dudamel won the honor.

In fact, Dudamel has made a point that Israel is where he got his breakthrough with a major international orchestra.

“I’ve conducted orchestras before it, but the IPO gave me the first opportunity to conduct a major orchestra in a regular concert season and to collaborate with star soloists,” Dudamel told the Jerusalem Post in 2006. (For this article, his representatives said he could not be available.)

Evidence of the Dudamel-IPO romance comes in many forms. He’s conducted the orchestra more than 35 times, mostly in Israel but also on a tour to Italy. He’s visited individual musicians’ homes, met their families and partied with them. Avi Shoshani, the orchestra’s secretary general, attended Dudamel’s wedding. The musicians feel such warmth for him that they are known to refer to him simply as “the kid.” And then, there’s the music, which has won raves.

Mark Swed, music critic for the Los Angeles Times, reviewing the IPO’s visit to Southern California under Dudamel last November, noted an “unmistakable chemistry.”

The program for these concerts said a lot about the relationship between the Israel orchestra and Dudamel. He led them in Leonard Bernstein’s “Jubilee Games,” a piece the great Jewish American conductor wrote as a statement of playful affection for the IPO. By performing the work in the United States, Dudamel claimed his stake as an honorary citizen of both the American and Israeli musical worlds.

All that since he had his first contact with the Israelis, in the summer of 2005.

“What happened,” explained Shoshani, speaking from Israel, “is that he first came to us by sheer coincidence. Zubin Mehta was forced to cancel a visit to Israel, which never really happened before. His mother was dying, and he had to go back to Los Angeles. When we discussed who would replace him, it had to be a superstar equivalent to him, a Muti or a Levine, or it had to be a young person with a big talent. [Mehta] said, ‘I have a name,’ and that was Gustavo. He gave me a number in Caracas.”

The longtime head of the Israel’s top orchestra found that, on paths of opportunity where others might walk, Dudamel tends to run.

“We discussed repertoire,” Shoshani continued. “He said, ‘I want to conduct Mahler’s Fifth,’ and I was very, very much against it. I talked to him not like the director of an orchestra, but more like father to son. I said, ‘Gustavo, you will be committing suicide to conduct the Mahler Fifth with the Israel Philharmonic. Mahler is the language of this orchestra. It has done Mahler with Bernstein, with Solti, with Abbado. You will embarrass yourself.’ But he insisted that I was wrong and he was right.”

“In the first intermission of the first rehearsal, after an hour and a half, the musicians came to me and said, ‘He has such a passion and such a connection with the music.’ He went out for lunch and dinner with them and played chamber music. As a violinist, he is very much at home. And he became part of our [IPO’s] 70th anniversary celebrations. It became a love story.”
Declining to get specific, Shoshani said he’s talking these days with Dudamel about his conducting the IPO in the future, even as the conductor gets an enthusiastic welcome in Los Angeles. Shoshani said he feels confident the relationship will continue.

Beyond the IPO, one of Dudamel’s closest musical friends is the renowned violinist Gil Shaham. The 38-year-old Shaham was born in America to Israeli parents, who brought him back to Israel when he was 2. He made his debut at age 10 with the Jerusalem Symphony and, about a year later, with the IPO. Shaham, reached at his apartment in Manhattan, said he and Dudamel have performed together about eight times, often in Israel.

Los Angeles audiences will get a chance to experience this musical friendship in November, when Shaham joins Dudamel as part of his inaugural L.A. season, to perform Alban Berg’s violin concerto.

Shaham says he can’t recall just how they first met, though he said they’ve spent considerable time together in Tel Aviv, New York and London. “We’ve seen each other on many occasions, and I do feel like we’ve struck a kind of closeness,” Shaham said. “We’ve met each others’ families and we hang out outside of concert halls.”

In New York, the two visited Gray’s Papaya, a famed hot dog stand near Lincoln Center that draws a lot of Juilliard students. One night, in London, they stayed up late drinking and plotting an imaginary event at which Shaham would play the music of Pablo de Sarasate, a Spanish composer whose violin pieces Shaham and Dudamel both love, while Dudamel and his wife would dance traditional Spanish dances.

Shaham recalls sitting in the back of a London taxi and telling Dudamel he was heading to Los Angeles to perform Aram Khachaturian’s violin concerto.

Dudamel suddenly performed long stretches of it using solfège, the syllabic vocal device musicians learn to sing scores. Dudamel, Shaham found, had mastered it with a special passion.  “I love this piece. And it turns out he knew it backwards and forwards. And there we were, the two of us, in the back of the taxi, solfèging the slow movement and laughing.”

When Shaham won the prestigious Avery Fisher prize last year, Dudamel made a surprise appearance in New York to present it. “Stop, my friend,” Dudamel called to Shaham, as the violinist started to leave the stage after a performance.

Recently, they’ve talked about the approach they’ll take to the Berg in Los Angeles in a few weeks. The concerto is part of a project Shaham is undertaking to explore the surge of violin concerti composed in the 1930s. It was Berg’s last finished work. He was not Jewish, but the Nazis banned his high-modernist music for being “degenerate.”

Shaham says Dudamel harbors a special fondness for the piece.

“The music making with Gustavo is incredible,” he says. “But it’s also that he’s so genuine and open with his feelings. He’s really made friends in Israel. He’s gotten close to the orchestra. It is unspoken, but I think that in Israel, by now, he’s regarded as a kind of honorary Jew, an honorary Israeli. I think he senses that there is that much feeling about him, and that it has all happened very naturally.”