A new documentary portrait of Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, ¡Viva Maestro!, packs in the biggest musical themes. It begins with perhaps the most iconic of them all, Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 5 in C Minor" with its knock-down-the-doors opening. The pairing of these two things — Beethoven and Dudamel — might not seem particularly unusual, but there are deeper connections at work. Both conductor and composer are united across hundreds of years in their commitment to music as a radical and revolutionary force.
Director Theodore Braun started his film in 2017, just as Dudamel was preparing for a European tour of Beethoven’s symphonies. In a particularly telling scene, the conductor leads the Simón Bolívar Orchestra in a rehearsal of the famous opening chords of "Symphony No. 5," sharpening the attack until the music practically cuts you in two.
The difference that a conductor can make in even the hoariest of classical chestnuts is startling. All of a sudden, the thing is made anew, the meaning and intent behind the notes crystallizing to profound emotional clarity. But there is more here than simply new interpretations of old symphonies. As a film, Maestro is as much about how music parallels current events as it is a portrait of one of the world’s most famous conductors.
The mixture of music and politics is fascinating stuff, but before the narrative can dig in deep, the basic elements of Dudamel’s life and work must be established.
A prodigy of the first order, Dudamel came up through the music education system called El Sistema. Established in 1975 by conductor, activist and educator José Antonio Abreu, the intent of the program was summed up by its slogan: “Music for Social Change.”
Since the time of its founding, the program of free musical education for children of all economic backgrounds has seen millions of kids learn to play. Dudamel was one. His meteoric rise as a musical wunderkind started early. At age four, he began playing the violin. By age 12, he was conducting orchestras.
From there, he reached the giddiest of musical heights. At 18, he was leading Venezuela’s national youth orchestra, before taking the baton for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A montage of headlines and highlights document this star turn, before returning Dudamel to his place of origin in Venezuela.
Unlike many of his fearsome, terrifying predecessors — conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Beecham and Georg Solti, who was dubbed the screaming skull by the musicians that he directed — Dudamel is a smiling, ebullient presence, his flop of dark curls bouncing along in time to the music.
It’s little wonder that children are drawn to him like a pied piper. The scenes of him working with youth orchestras as they honk and toot their way through pieces are worth the price of admission alone. Intercut with these scenes of budding musicians are moments of near-obliterating sublimity as Dudamel conducts some of the greatest orchestras in the world.
His ability to daylight the deepest heart of a piece occurs multiple times throughout the film, most notably with Antonín Dvořák’s "Symphony No. 9 in E Minor," better known as the "New World Symphony." I was obsessed with this piece as a child, every nuance embedded by my constant listening sessions. Dudamel’s version is both crystalline and thunderous, bolts of electric light cutting across an enormous darkening cloud of sound.
The music would be more than enough for most films, but the real drama of the documentary kicks in as Venezuela descends into economic and social chaos. Protests against President Nicolás Maduro began following the arrest of opposition leaders and the dissolution of the National Assembly, leading to a constitutional crisis. As the violence escalated, musicians begin to leave the country, fearing for their future and the safety of their families. Even the fate of El Sistema, the country’s fabled music program, come into question.
As Dudamel takes pains to note throughout the film, he is not a political creature — until he is forced to be, that is. The violent street protests against the Venezuelan government resulted in multiple injuries and death, including the killing of a 17-year-old member of the youth orchestra. When Dudamel finally voices his feelings about the violence wracking his country, the film puts it in his own words.
The conductor reads a statement posted on his social media account: “I raise my voice against violence. I raise my voice against any form of repression. Nothing justifies bloodshed… I urgently call on the president of the republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people. Times cannot be defined by the blood of our people… It is time to listen to the people: Enough is enough.”
The repercussions and retaliation are immediate and severe. Dudamel’s public statement results in cancelled tours. He is also removed from a leadership role in El Sistema, Venezuela’s world-famous music program that formed the foundation of his musical career.
Effectively banned from his home country, Dudamel pivots. He starts a youth orchestra program in Mexico with composer Arturo Márquez, inviting young musicians from across North and South America to come and play. It is a voice of hope. The young players themselves overflowing with joy are a reminder that people acting in concert can achieve miraculous things — both cultural and political.
It is here where the convergence of music and social change come into focus in the film. The clearest manifestation belongs to Beethoven’s symphonies. Many of the composer’s most famous works are intensely political, driven by a deep and foundational humanism. In this fashion, they are nothing short of revolutionary and almost painfully relevant to the current moment, as autocracies around the world continue to rise and the rights of ordinary people are imperilled.
As another world-famous conductor Leonard Bernstein said of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, "Ode to Joy," which is based on a poem from Friedrich Schiller, “it speaks a universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom and love… This is the magic that no amount of talk can explain.” The performance of this symphonic work in the documentary is simply impossible to resist. It’s an explosion of the highest and most cathartic pinnacle of the human spirit.
“It is a message of union,” Dudamel explains.
The idea that music could in fact change society was a critical part of El Sistema, the accessible program for kids of all backgrounds founded by José Antonio Abreu. The very nature of an orchestra — communal, co-operative, but also, and most importantly, collectively transcendent — offered young people something more, something bigger, bolder and infinitely more joyous than the mundane stuff of daily life.
As Abreu stated after winning the 2009 Ted Prize, orchestras model a better kind of world — one in which people listen to each other with respect and compassion.
“In its essence, the orchestra and choir are more than artistic structures, because to sing and play together means to intimately coexist. They are examples and schools of social life.”
This idea finds voice in one of the quietest moments of ¡Viva Maestro!. Dudamel tells a story about an El Sistema director showing up for a rehearsal at the height of the country’s troubles, only to see that 40 per cent of the orchestra is present. He wonders why he bothers to carry on but decides to continue. Then slowly, the rest of the musicians begin to arrive. “Why are you so late?” the conductor asks. The students tell him that the subway was closed. But rather than give up, they walked for two hours in the rain, carrying their instruments, just to be able to play together.
As Dudamel says in the film, “Art, music, culture goes beyond entertainment. It heals a community. It heals the soul of the people.”
Dictators and autocrats come and go, but Beethoven is forever.