Gustavo Dudamel Explains the Origin of his Enchanted Musical Stick
Gustavo Dudamel Explains the Origin of his Enchanted Musical Stick
Fewer personalities have lit up the classical music world as much as Venezuelan born conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel, 36, first burst onto international scene after winning the Gustav Mahler Prize for conducting in Germany in 2004. From then on he became a sought-after commodity, making his debut at La Scala, Milan with a rapturous performance of Don Giovanni. Since 2009 he has led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra to universal acclaim. We caught up with Dudamel at his plush Bel Air townhouse to ask him the secret to his success.
“I must confess a weakness for wine” Dudamel mused. “Sometimes I don’t know whether I drink the wine or the wine drinks me”.
“Ah yes, The Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Where do I begin? Believe it or not, I haven’t a musical bone in my body. The extraordinary musical pyrotechnics you see on display every night come not from my own ability, but from a more supernatural power”.
Dudamel set down his wine and rose from his chair, walking softly yet deliberately to an elegant, antique credenza. Opening a drawer he proceeded to withdraw a wooden case inscribed with the inscrutable characters of an ancient and perhaps dead language. Blowing the dust off the mysterious container, Dudamel smiled gaily as he opened the box and produced his conductors’ baton.
“This enchanted stick allows me to cajole music from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra!” Dudamel proclaimed, proudly lifting the wand to the heavens. “It was given to me by an obscure Sufi mystic on the shores of the Black Sea. Oh the memories! It all started 20 years ago, when I was a young seeker, running around the world like a mad dog fervently seeking answers to the questions that boiled in my brain.
“My quest soon led me to the monasteries of Tiflis where I poured over the volumes of esoteric, near eastern wisdom. It was there that I became acquainted with a wizened old scholar by the name of Yakov, known for his prodigious memory and ability to recall the date and publication of any book, but especially those written in Turkish, Georgian and Arabic. Often we would talk about philosophical matters. Yakov, who read in 18 languages, had a reputation in Tiflis as a sage, but from time to time did business in the rare book market. Before long he informed me that the books I had acquired were, in fact, forgeries and that if I truly wished to learn more I should accompany him to the Soldiers Bazaar.
“When I arrived in the market I found a captivating and dangerous world my young eyes had never seen. The overpowering aroma of jasmine and saffron stupefied me. Everywhere merchants from near and far hawked their wares. Azeri fishmongers mongered, Persian swindlers swindled, belly dancers beckoned, Ottoman Pirates pirated and exiles from all over the Russian Empire exchanged furtive looks and plotted revolution. Lost in the teeming and kaleidoscopic plaza, I soon lost track of Yakov. After roaming the bazaar for several hours I happened upon a silk merchant who appeared to be conversing with my mentor.
“Where have you been?” Yakov said, pointing his finger at me accusingly. “I have been talking to Abram here. He has answers for you. The books you have in your posession are indeed forgeries. They appear to be the work of an Italian who runs with a gang of Aisors. Find him and you may find what you are looking for”. I paused for a moment. This business was beginning to get out of hand. I wanted to ask for clarification, but before I could open my mouth Yakov was gone.
“For days I wandered the markets of Tiflis, prying the locals for clues about the Aisors and the mysterious Italian. Everywhere I went I was regarded with suspicion. The Airsors were not to be trusted, you see. The good honest folk regarded them as the most dangerous rogues of Transcaucasia. They were often referred to as “cross stealers” for their trade in false religious articles purported to be from the Holy sites of Jerusalem. They trafficked in the teeth of Judas, said to bring good luck, and the hair of the Virgin Mary. ‘Boil 7 Armenians and you will get one Jew, boil 7 Jews and you will get one Aisor’ as the saying went, but that is neither here nor there.
“After some digging I came upon a stall that carried plaster-of-Paris statuettes rendered in the shape of dogs, boars and pears. The statuettes were a trifle, what interested me was the shopkeeper. He looked out of place with his Roman nose and the tongue he spoke carried an unmistakable Latinate lilt. I begged him to take me on as an employee. After some hours of convincing, he relented. I worked for the man for several months, making myself the buffoon, acting as stupidly as I could so I could learn his secrets.
“Before long, the Italian remarked to a stranger about a wise man said to live in Constantinople. The Turks regarded the man as some kind of wizard or sorcerer and it was prophesied that a young man would seek him out and gain immense power. When sundown approached I left in a hurry for a caravan leaving that day bound for Constantinople.
“When I arrived, however, I soon realized that I had no money and needed to find work to sustain myself as I searched for the sorcerer. Standing on the edge of a parapet overlooking the Bosporus I spotted seven divers. The boys, none of whom could have been older than 10 years old made their living collecting coins that had fallen to the sea floor. Not considering myself above this line of work, I joined the boys and soon learned their trade.
As the seasons changed the Bosporus yielded its secrets to me. In the course of my adventures I spoke with many traders who would often pass by in their steamers. Time and again they would regale us with legends of the Eastern Empire. One steamboat captain of Greek extraction told me that many treasures lay on the other side of the Bosporus near Scutari. There a one-eyed man lived who was said to possess extraordinary abilities. At that moment, I bid farewell to my young friends and made way for Scutari.
I searched for months to no avail, finding work with some fishermen. The work was simple and honest and though my pay was a pittance, the ocean breezes were worth a fortune.
One day, however, we were caught in a storm of almost satanic malevolence. Our ship did not survive, but somehow, miraculously I washed up safely on shore. When I came to, I was offered water by an old man. As my vision grew clearer, I noticed to my amazement that this old man was the very man I had been searching for. While he was missing one eye, his other eye gleamed as intensely as the sapphire fastened to his turban.
“I believe you have been looking for me”, he said. “The floor of the Bosporus hosts many treasures. Find me a chaplet and I shall give you something nice”.
“The chaplet, whose image imposes itself on any Asiatic mind, would not be easy to find. Nevertheless, I set myself to the task with renewed vigor, diving to the sea floor, but coming up empty hour-by-hour, day-by-day. Sometimes I would get discouraged, cursing the old man, calling the whole thing a fools’ errand.
“One brisk morning I swore to myself that this would be my last day as a diver. If I did not find that chaplet I would forget my quest for enlightenment and return home, dejected and disillusioned. As I dove once more, pangs of sadness and desperation came over me. Swimming deeper and deeper my heart felt as Black as the Black Sea. It was there and then that I thought of ending my life. Another failed seeker. As I reached the sea floor I lost the will to live and let the water fill my lungs, tasting the salty taste of death. I blacked out.
I saw myself move into the light, passing into another world. I was done for… or was I? Somehow, inexplicably I found myself on the surface! The brilliant azure sky blinded me. Wondrous, miraculous life-giving air filled my lungs as I found myself seated upon a whale! And sitting there on the body of the great beast was the chaplet!
“Clutching the chaplet I bid farewell to the leviathan and swam for the shore. No time to catch my breath I must find the old man! Running along the shores, I felt giddy. The chaplet was mine. I soon came upon the old man in his hut smoking an herbal potpourri in his pipe.
“I have something for you” I said.
“Come with me” he replied.
We made our way to an unassuming edifice deep within the heart of the ancient city. After scaling a staircase we entered a room. Thirty dervishes in white gowns circled the room, their synchronized motions giving the impression of one organized entity. “I believe I owe you something”, the old man said. From a chest in the room he produced the case I carry to this day. He opened it and presented me with the artifact.
“This stick” he said “will allow you to cajole music from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Use it well. Use it for good”.
And then the old man invited me to join the Sufis in their ritual. Twirling, whirling and swirling in the ecstasy of the pointing dervish, I learned the difference between a life well lived and a life not lived at all”.
Gustavo Dudamel will be preforming the works of Bela Bartok with the Los Angeles Philharmonic next week. Tickets are available for purchase at laphil.com