Tracing Beethoven's Steps in Bogotá: Gustavo Dudamel

For the first time ever in his career, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies in numerical order on five successive nights. From July 8-12, Gustavo, his Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar from Caracas, and audiences at the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo in Bogotá, will trace together the steps of Beethoven's genius.

In part one, I wrote about why it was a great thing to hear and play all nine symphonies on successive nights and why Bogotá was a great place to do it.

Here is how Gustavo and the musicians do it.


All conductors and orchestras tackle Beethoven differently, with their own temperament and style. Most of the work takes place in rehearsals and through repeated concert performances where the conductor and the musicians can fuse their vision of the music and get it ready for the public to hear. Playing classical music live in concert so that it sounds as good as it does on recordings is an immensely serious and difficult undertaking, a supreme test which requires constant vigilance, focus and inspiration.

Gustavo is known for the hard work and preparation he takes before every first rehearsal. Some musicians from the Los Angeles Philharmonic shared their insights:

"In rehearsals, Gustavo can be very emotional. He makes the orchestra want to play for him. He works on the sound of the strings a lot, looking for the perfect, unified, beautiful sound. He makes us feel as if the whole process was an exciting search for the unknown."

"Working with Dudamel on Beethoven is natural. He has an affinity for this composer.  If a conductor does not feel natural with Beethoven, it is very difficult for him or her to make Beethoven's symphonies work. Carlo Maria Giulini would get a great sheen to the sound of the orchestra, and balanced it very naturally, but he still had to have to a feel for performing Beethoven. Dudamel has that feel, and has not had to figure anything out."

"Gustavo approaches Beethoven like he does every composer. His aim is to understand what Beethoven is saying with his music and communicate this with his orchestra. I am sure that he researches the history behind the music, and reads what other conductors and composers have had to say about Beethoven's symphonies. Gustavo has a gift of bringing music alive that is different than most conductors. It is as if the music comes alive in his entire body, and he literally becomes the music. This is what makes him so special. This is what makes Gustavo a true gift to the world."

I also spoke to two young soloists about playing Beethoven with Gustavo.

Sergio Tiempo, a young virtuoso born in Venezuela from an Argentinean family of Ukrainian, Italian, Spanish and Dutch immigrants, who will play Beethoven's Choral Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra at a special "Concierto Binacional: Colombia-Venezuela" gala on July 6, told me,

"Since the first time that I played with Gustavo many years ago, I felt an immediate, silently understood musical and human affinity. We became instant friends and have shared a strong feeling of brotherhood ever since.

"And, of course, Beethoven is the first composer that comes to mind when one talks of fraternity-his Ninth Symphony famously crystalizing and celebrating this universal bond throughout humanity. So what could be more appropriate and heart-warming than to play not only Beethoven, but this Choral Fantasy which sounds at times exactly like a little Ninth Symphony, with Gustavo and the rest of my South American siblings! I am truly moved by the prospect of it."

I leave the last word to French cellist Gautier Capuçon, who has played Beethoven's Triple Concerto with Dudamel conducting, alongside his violinist brother Renaud and pianist Martha Argerich:

"Beethoven can go very easily or it can be a nightmare. But when it's like we played it in Salzburg with Gustavo and his Simon Bolivar orchestra, their energy gave the music the character, color, texture, sound and pace that Beethoven must have been dreaming of when he wrote the Concerto two centuries ago."