It's nearly noon on a Saturday. A blazing sun bears down on the Hollywood Bowl, whose 18,000 seats are unoccupied at the moment. But onstage Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan-born conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is leading a vigorous rehearsal.
The musicians, shaded by the venue's shell, are all in casual dress. Dudamel is sporting a black polo shirt, jeans and what look like blue suede shoes. Otherwise he remains a study in sheer concentration, precisely cueing various groups of musicians throughout the rehearsal, and giving them feedback on the sound.
He will open his sixth season as the Philharmonic's musical director on Sept. 30, an event that makes it hard to believe this conductor is only 33.
A world-class artist who has become synonymous with classical music in Southern California and who tours the world, Dudamel displayed a new facet of his talent in a July 31 concert at the Hollywood Bowl, leading the orchestra in a suite from the film score he recently composed, his first.
While cooling off backstage after the rehearsal, Dudamel explains how this new shift in his career happened.
In light of his commitments with the Philharmonic and two other major orchestras, Dudamel says he intended to be just a musical adviser on "The Liberator," a film directed by his friend Alberto Arvelo and starring his friend Édgar Ramírez. Both are fellow Venezuelans, and the movie was inspired by the life of Simón Bolívar, the military genius who helped free not only their country but Bolivia, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru from Spanish rule early in the 19th century.
When Arvelo first told the conductor about the arc of the screenplay, Dudamel says, "I tried to imagine musically what he was telling me." He suggested pieces of music for the filmmaker to listen to, which might become part of the score. But in his head, he kept imagining his own soundtrack accompanying the images Arvelo described.
Then, during some rare downtime just after his wife, Eliosa, gave birth to their son, Martin, "I started to play some things on the piano," while reading the script, he says. The next thing he knew, he was composing the score.
Early in the process, Dudamel says, he invited five-time Oscar-winning composer John Williams over to the house to hear some of what he'd put together. "I was so nervous that day," Dudamel recalls, "but when I played for him he told me it sounded really good, and ... to develop this or that. He said, 'Don't create a symphony. Sometimes only use one element, to create tension.' "
Dudamel says Williams is "like a god to me. He's not only a great film composer, but I think is one of the great composers in the history of music."
The conductor also recounts a time when Williams invited him to Sony Studios to guest-conduct part of a recording session for Williams' "War Horse" and "Tin-Tin" scores. "I was so amazed," Dudamel says. "There was Steven Spielberg! It's a different world than the symphonic work I do. It's really exciting."
"The Liberator" is set to premiere this fall, and Deutsche Grammophon released the film's soundtrack late last month.
Dudamel says he took to heart Williams' advice about simplicity, and used the theme from "Fanfare for the Common Man" by American composer Aaron Copland as a jumping-off point.
South American history might have been very different, Dudamel observes, had Bolívar's first wife not died of yellow fever shortly after they were married. The general then put his energy into throwing off the Spanish yoke. "Had his wife had children, who knows what would have happened," the conductor says.
Fatherhood has brought a major change to Dudamel's world. He says Martin "is the center of the hurricane that is my life. I think without (him), the music of the film would not be possible. He was an inspiration."