by RIP RENSE
(Oct. 14, 2009)
interviewed Gustavo Dudamel the other night. I know,
I know, quite a coup. Yes, met around 3 a.m., on Ether Street in
Land of Nod. I was deeply asleep at the time, but it didn’t
stop me from doing the interview (old journalistic reflexes and
all that.) And for some miraculous reason, I was able to
understand all his Spanish, and transcribe precisely into
English. Here is the full transcript.
RR: Gustavo, how do you feel about the L.A. Phil
marketing you as a latino conductor? You know, with all the
big bus ads screaming “Electrico! Gustavo!” and L.A. Phil
management freely acknowledging that it is targeting the “latino
DUDAMEL: It’s terrible. It makes me embarrassed, ashamed.
I am not a “latino conductor.” I am a conductor. I do not
conduct “latino music.” I conduct music. I do not work in a
“latino concert hall.” I work in a concert hall. Why does the
orchestra management target a “latino audience?” Because I’m
from Venezuela? Then why did the orchestra not target a
“Caucasian audience” when Esa-Pekka Salonen was conducting? Or
more to the point, a Finnish audience? Maybe the orchestra
should now target a Venezuelan audience!
RR: It almost sounds as if you are suggesting this is
DUDAMEL: It is opportunistic, at least, and at worst, it
is chauvinistic, patronizing, condescending. It is as if the
L.A. Philharmonic decided, “Well, now that we have a conductor
with a Spanish surname, we can interest latinos in symphonic
music!” How absurd.
RR: What’s wrong with that?
DUDAMEL: So latinos could not otherwise be interested in
symphonic music? They are only interested because there is a
conductor with a Spanish surname? This is ridiculous, degrading
to latinos, and, as I said, chauvinistic, patronizing,
RR: But many latinos don’t seem to mind at all. Oscar
Garza in the L.A. Weekly wrote this: “The
Dude is the Great Brown Hope in the biggest, brownest
metropolis north of Mexico City. The question is whether Dudamel
can turn L.A.’s Latino population — particularly its vast middle
class — into symphonygoers.”
DUDAMEL: First of all, I fervently wish people would stop
referring to me as “The Dude.” It was okay the first few
thousand times, but it is very trite at this point. Well, I
reject Garza's statement totally. It is full of race-based
assumption and implication. What is it with your country that
everything must be put in terms of race? How sick this is!
“Great Brown Hope?” What does that mean? Who is hoping? Brown
people? What are they hoping for? Well, I know many people of
many racial backgrounds who are brown. Some are from Sri
Lanka, some are Caucasian. And by the way, my skin is very
light, almost porcelain in color. What would Mr. Garza say about
RR: But what Garza simply means is that he believes it is
your job to turn L.A.’s latinos into symphonygoers. You are the
“great brown hope” for achieving this. What’s wrong with that?
DUDAMEL: It is separating, divisive. It categorizes me,
and reduces the nature of my task. Look, it is my job to serve
the music. Period. The music. Who comes to hear it is
beyond my control. I do hope that my presence, and my
conducting, inspire many people to become “symphonygoers.” Is
that a word, by the way? I don’t care if they are latinos or
Eskimos. All are welcome! Music is, to my thinking, the most
beguiling of human expression, and I want nothing more than for
more people to share in this wonder. But I am not here to
attract any one racial or ethnic faction! That would be
politicizing something that is universal in nature.
RR: Yes, but what is wrong with latinos inspired to
listen because you are also latino?
DUDAMEL: Nothing. But here is the difficulty. Symphonic
music is not like listening to
Marco Antonio Solis. Some pieces are accessible enough, such
as Beethoven’s 5th, but I don’t expect new latino audience
members---or any other new listeners of any ethnic background---to
suddenly embrace Stravinsky, Mahler, Berlioz. Or
for that matter. If the L.A. Phil management expects this, they
are living in a dream world. To listen to lengthy, highly
complex pieces of music requires patience and interest, for
starters. If one is not raised with this music, trying to
apprehend it as an adult can be difficult, even impossible. It's
one thing to enjoy watching musicians play, and to hum along
with the big themes, but it is another to understand the intent
of the composer, the style of the music, and so on. It is the
latter that turns a casual listener into a serious one.
RR: Well, saying things like that would bring charges of
racism, if you were white.
DUDAMEL: Ridiculous. This is not a question of race, it’s
a question of taste, and exposure, and I must say, education.
Not everyone enjoys
3rd. In some cases, it’s taste. In others, it’s lack of
patience with, or understanding of, what they are hearing
because of lack of exposure and education. This is what is so
in my country: it exposes young people to the world of symphonic
music, so they might come to understand and enjoy it. This does
not usually happen overnight to adults hearing Schubert's "Die
Winterreise" for the first time. And this is why I am
closely with the Philharmonic to bring music to schools that
lack music programs.
RR: Which is wonderful, heroic, even.
Chris Pasles in the L.A. Weekly says you are here “to save
DUDAMEL: This would be laughable if it were not so crazy.
Classical---I prefer to call it symphonic---music is more
popular throughout the world than it ever has been. If
orchestras and opera companies are having hard times, it is
because of the economy, not lack of enthusiasm for music. There
is such a glut of superb musicians, in fact, that many commute
thousands of miles a week just to play in a lesser symphony
orchestra---for no pay! Why are these writers putting these
insane metaphorical burdens on me?
RR: Well, you are young, and you have done so much in
Venezuela for music already.
DUDAMEL: Not me!
Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema. I am just a lucky
product of his work. And as for being young, my goodness, there
are many young conductors in the world. Everyone seems to have
Zubin Mehta was two years younger than I am when he
took over the L.A. Phil in 1962! I don’t think writers were
saying he was here to “save classical music,” or to attract the
India community! Or that he was the "hot, spicy Indian." Sheesh.
RR: Be that as it may, the L.A. Phil is intent on
attracting the “latino audience.” Garza reported that the L.A.
Phil actually hired a latino
marketing firm to sell you to the “latino audience.”
DUDAMEL: How very politically correct of the Phil! Well,
the orchestra would be accused of racial insensitivity had
management hired non-latinos to market to latinos, right? Again,
what madness is this race business! This is reductive and
divisive, and contrary to my way of thinking. But I also tend to
reject marketing and demographics as valuable professions. I
think they find the cheapest, lowest-common-denominator aspect
of a product, and exploit it. Look, those latinos in Los Angeles
who enjoy symphonic music have already been attending L.A.
Philharmonic concerts, not because there is a latino conductor,
or because of a latino ad campaign, but because of. . .the
music! The music! While it’s fine if more latinos come out of
curiosity to see a latino conductor---although I’m hardly the
first latino conductor or soloist to stand in front of the L.A.
Philharmonic---this will not translate to hordes of latino
season subscribers. A few people will be enticed by the ad
campaign to see the “latino conductor” and to spend an evening
in “cool” Disney Hall, but this experience will not convert them
into season subscribers. Those seats will continue to be bought
up, largely, by the same monied bloc that usually buys
them---which, I’m told, if you want to play the race game, is
mostly white and Asian.
RR: This brings up the issue of elitism. Let me quote a
passage from an
L.A. Times commentary by Gregory Rodriguez: “But L.A.'s
cultural elite shouldn't mistake the Dudamel phenomenon for a
solid strategy to reverse its historic negligence toward the
city's Latinos. The fact is, American elites have always been
more comfortable hobnobbing with foreign-born Spanish-speakers
who match them in income and class (and, dare I say, color) than
they have been with the local Latinos they've lived around for
years. Yes, at least part of the joy over Dudamel, particularly
for the regulars at Disney Hall, can be explained by this
familiarity. Historically, foreign-born elites generally escape
the social prejudice that burdens even their relatively
well-to-do native-born co-ethnics.”
DUDAMEL: This is all so vexing. Race, race, race---it
seems everyone in your city is forever squabbling about race,
race, race. You know, there seems no pleasing this Mr.
Rodriguez, who is so concerned with race. Here his city's
orchestra hires a "latino," but Rodriguez suggests that the
"joy" over this is due to the fact that I am "foreign born!" He
would prefer, apparently, that I come from Boyle Heights! Such
absurdity! You know, I come here to help bring people together
through music, and I have to contend with articles such as this
one. (Sigh.) And I am left in the sad and immodest position of
having to remind Mr. Rodriguez that I was hired for my
abilities, not my ethnicity! And you know, I wonder what
L.A.’s “historic negligence toward the city’s latinos” might be.
Is he talking about the terrible era of long ago when minorities
were prohibited from owning property, except in certain areas?
The Zoot Suit riots of World War II? That hardly seems germane
to today, does it? Latinos appear to dominate this city, as far
as I can tell, or very soon will, by sheer numbers. Your mayor
is latino, as well as many other government officials. There is
an enormous amount of latino media and culture everywhere you
look, and tons of latinos in mainstream media. There are vast,
long-standing chicano studies departments at your universities. How
are latinos being neglected? I don't understand. Most of the
latinos that I see are employed, raising families, seem to be
doing no worse than most everyone else. I have seen neglected
latinos in my country, so I know of what I speak! But these are
issues with which I need not be concerned. I am here to serve
the music. Or at least I am trying to be, if the media would
just cover it that way.
RR: What are your thoughts about the group Rodriguez
refers to as “the elites?”
DUDAMEL: Ah, yes, this notion of elites, and “cultural
elites.” The writer seems to have a premise that pits “elites”
against “latinos.” The “elites” connotes “whites,” I assume, and
attendant condescension, injustice, persecution, etc. The
implication, therefore, is strictly Them vs. Us. This
contentious notion seems to be the underlying attitude of this
writer, so why should I take another word he writes seriously?
Your country is very sick with this illness of race. As for his
statement about “elites being more comfortable hobnobbing with
foreign-born Spanish-speakers who match them in income and class
(and dare I say, color) than they have been with the local
Latinos they’ve lived around for years,” this is also
vilification of monied "elitists," depicting them as racist. Why
should persons with money who support the L.A. Philharmonic be
so villified? This is divisive and not in the interests of
serving art or music. And by the way, is this statement about
skin color also a slap at me because my skin-tone is light?
RR: I realize this is a distasteful subject, but can you
DUDAMEL: Well, the man implies racism on the part of the
“elites” of L.A., in part, because they “have not been with the
local Latinos they’ve lived around for years.” I don’t know what
he is talking about. Everywhere I go in Los Angeles, I see lots
and lots of latinos. The population is very, very mixed, which
is one of things I like about the place. Everyone told me the
west side, for instance, was “white.” I walk on the Third Street
Promenade some nights and white people are the minority.
Frankly, I resent being used by writers such as Garza and
Rodriguez to explain their agendas regarding race relations in
Los Angeles. As I said, I am here to conduct music, and music is
not brown. Disney Hall is not brown. Los Angeles is not brown.
Except when the air is particularly bad.
RR: But it is true that the “regulars at Disney Hall,” as
Rodriguez suggests, are not very latino.
DUDAMEL: When GM Deborah Borda calls it “L.A.’s living
room,” who is she kidding? If there is elitism, it is monetary
in nature, not racial. Disney Hall seats are expensive! But this
is also a product of interest, is it not? Latinos here have a
rich culture of their own---actually, depending on their
origins, many rich cultures. Why presume that they should
suddenly have to become aficionados of symphonic music? Is this
a deficiency on their part? This is, again, patronizing and
chauvinistic. If many prefer to listen to
Jim Svejda, who am I to say this is wrong? Who is anyone to
say this is wrong? They don't have to come to see me conduct!
RR: Yet you are working with the L.A. Phil to bring music
education to the latino community, are you not?
DUDAMEL: No! I am not!
I am working with the L.A. Phil to bring music education to
as many schools as possible that do not have music education
programs. I don’t care if the students are latino, or
African-American, or Caucasian, or Filipino, or Guatemalan, or
whatever they are. This is my point. Music is for everyone. Now
that is an ad campaign I would like to see the L.A. Phil
instigate. Instead of hiring a latino marketing firm to come up
with heavy-handed ad campaigns using Spanish words and glam
shots of me with my curls waving (you wonder why I cut them off
recently!), why not billboards or ads with people of many
cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and a slogan such as “Music is
for everyone.” I know, I know, it’s not “sexy.” It doesn’t sell.
What I don’t understand is how, in this country, a marketing
campaign may be based entirely on race, and my presence defined
largely in terms of race by the likes of Garza and Rodriguez,
all in the name of promoting racial equality. How can people not
see the irony of this, the hypocrisy?
RR: Anything further you wish to add?
DUDAMEL: Yes. I heard L.A. Phil GM Deborah Borda being
interviewed about me the other day. She was asked what is
special about me, and she said that I had "seduced the
orchestra." I want to clear this up. The orchestra and I are
just good friends.
Editor's note: Just in case some of you skipped the first
paragraph and headline, this interview is entirely fictional,
and does not represent the opinions of Gustavo Dudamel, though I
hope it does!
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