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(Oct. 14, 2009)

          I interviewed Gustavo Dudamel the other night. I know, I know, quite a coup. Yes, met around 3 a.m., on Ether Street in the 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 community.”

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 racist?

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, condescending.

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 that?

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 Los Bukis or 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 Villa-Lobos, 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 Mahler’s 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 wonderful about El Sistema 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 working so 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 classical music.”

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! Jose 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 forgotten that 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? Disgusting.

RR: I realize this is a distasteful subject, but can you elaborate further?

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 Piolin over 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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