January 9, 2019

Dudamel Tells Trenton Students: “I Played in an Orchestra Like You”

LEARNING FROM THE MAESTRO: Gustavo Dudamel, shown here with members of the Trenton Youth Orchestra last month, returned to Princeton University this week for the second phase of his three-part residency on campus. This time, he visited with younger students from the Trenton Music Makers program. (Photo by Nick Donnoli/Princeton University Concerts)

By Anne Levin

In a first floor classroom at Princeton University’s Woolworth Music Building on Monday, a string orchestra made up of fourth to ninth-graders played for someone they might never have imagined they would meet. But there was Gustavo Dudamel, the internationally renowned conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, listening intently and nodding as violinists, violists, and cellists of the Trenton Music Makers program made their way through Rossini’s William Tell Overture.

As artist-in-residence this academic year in celebration of Princeton University Concerts’ 125th anniversary, Dudamel has made sure to schedule significant chunks of time with youngsters from music programs in Trenton and elsewhere. A big part of his agenda, he said in a press conference earlier in the afternoon, is dedicated to social change through music. Dudamel is a leading proponent of the El Sistema program, on which Trenton Music Makers is based and in which he participated as a child in Venezuela.

“Music has the unique power to unite and create opportunities for dialogue and understanding,” he said. “When people feel they own the culture of their communities, you create an identity that is unique.”

The residency program, divided into three parts, began last month. Events include concerts, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural panels and discussions, visual art, and classroom visits. The residency culminates April 26 when Dudamel conducts the Princeton University Orchestra and the Princeton University Glee Club in an already sold-out concert at Richardson Auditorium. The program of works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky will be repeated April 27 at Trenton’s Patriots Theater at the War Memorial (tickets are free and will be released April 1). And on April 28, as part of Communiversity, Dudamel will take part in the El Sistema Festival, a public concert featuring hundreds of students from Trenton Music Makers, the El Sistema New Jersey Alliance, and guests.

Monday’s schedule also included an evening performance by musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with a pre-concert by members of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. On Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., a panel discussion on El Sistema, moderated by Princeton University Professor Stanley Katz, will be held in McCosh 10, followed by a gallery reception of works by artist Marsha Levin-Rojer in the Bernstein Gallery of the Woodrow Wilson School. Both events are free.

At the press conference, Dudamel said he is often asked how he treats youngsters who are players as compared to how he treats professional musicians. “I always say that I work with them in the same way,” he said. “I treat them the same.”

Entering the classroom Monday, he took the time to shake hands with several of the young musicians. When they finished playing the three works on the program, he told them, “I played in an orchestra like you. I was watching you and remembering that it was a lot of fun, even though I made a lot of mistakes.”

Questioned by one of the students about when he conducted his first concert, Dudamel said he was 11 or 12. When she asked him if it was difficult, he recalled getting a lot of practice by lining up his puppets as an audience, and conducting to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, destroying the disk in the process. “Actually, playing an instrument, like you are doing, is hard,” he said. “Conducting is easy.”

Being artist-in-residence at the University is “a huge honor,” Dudamel said. “Sharing music, but also understanding, is the goal. Princeton has an amazing background and history. I hope it gets even more open in the next 125 years. We need opportunities for children to be creative and have access to beauty. Classical music has been in a box, and that is changing. I am looking forward to keeping a relationship [with the University] and building bridges.”