SPECIAL FEATURE Rock star of the classical world visits MIT

Dudamel, at the tender age of 28, wows and dazzles in MITSO rehearsal

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel visited MIT during Patriot’s Day weekend to receive this year’s $75,000 Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts, conducting the MIT Symphony Orchestra in an open rehearsal and taking part in a panel discussion on music education.

Dudamel is somewhat of a rock star in the cutthroat world of classical music performance, rising to fame in less than a decade to become music director of the world-renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic at the tender age of 28 last year. A quick assessment readily explains classical music’s eager embrace of him — his humble beginnings, youth, and a penchant for flamboyance are a much needed remedy for the elitism and stuffiness that has come to dominate the genre’s image. But beneath the facade is a genuine talent in commanding the orchestra as an instrument, as was demonstrated in the open rehearsal with MITSO. The transformation was marvelous; in less than an hour, MITSO became an extension of Dudamel, its sound fuller, style more dramatic, and response more pliant.

Dudamel conducted MITSO in two pieces, the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 (“Prague”) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol. He focused on the Mozart, probably because he had never conducted Capriccio Espagnol before, despite his affection for the piece. Though it was his first time, he did it by memory, cuing all the entrances as if it were second nature.

The hallmark of Dudamel’s style is an unwavering insistence on meeting a very clear sound world in his mind. His patience is endless and he inspires musicians by conveying his enthusiasm for a piece, often at the risk of embarrassment. He sings, he grunts, he makes bad analogies, but in the end everyone has caught his bug. For instance, after countless repetition failed to improve a portion of the Mozart, Dudamel compared the situation to not having enough ketchup in his hamburger that magically clinched everyone’s imagination.

“It’s as if you allow yourself to still be a child,” said Maria Hinojosa, PBS journalist and moderator of the panel discussion. Hinojosa was referring to Dudamel’s actions backstage during an introductory biopic — apparently, Dudamel began conducting when snippets of music played. The panel included Institute Professor John Harbison, one of today’s most important composers, and Media Lab Professor Tod Machover, a major innovator at the intersection of music and technology.

The discussion revealed how Dudamel was able to form a rapport with MITSO so naturally. Raised in Venezuela, Dudamel flourished in a goverment-run music program, El Sistema, aimed at empowering underprivileged children by cultivating a sense of teamwork, discipline, and insight through musical study. He attributed his approach to conducting to the social nature of El Sistema that encourages students to see each other as teammates.

“I don’t feel like as the conductor I’m in a position that I’m the boss. It’s not like I’m God and you have to shut up,” Dudamel said during the panel. He likened conducting to cooking, saying that even if “I’m coming with the idea, everybody is helping me to cook.”

The Eugene McDermott Award is an annual grant bestowed on promising talents in artistic disciplines. Established in 1974, it is one of the most generous arts grants in the US, giving the recipient a cash prize of $75,000. Eugene McDermott was the co-founder of Texas Instruments and a longtime benefactor of MIT.