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Gustavo Dudamel to bring Beethoven to the people in Heinz Hall appearance

| Thursday, April 6, 2017, 11:33 a.m.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel

Taking his music from the Super Bowl to symphony halls, conductor Gustavo Dudamel is trying to build bridges between Beyonce and Beethoven.

The music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is working at that goal with performances that present new music and old, soundtracks, TV appearances from "Mozart in the Jungle" to talk shows, and music education in his homeland and around the world.

Settling into a couch at Pittsburgh's Heinz Hall, the Venezuelan says he is always fighting "a feeling of elitism that surrounds classical music."

Moments earlier, Dudamel, 36, was leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra through rehearsal of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. He will make his premiere appearances with the orchestra April 7 and 9 at Heinz Hall.

He knows some people look at the music of Beethoven as old, but he insists they are missing the point.

"It is new and creative every time we play it," Dudamel says. "Art is alive all of the time."

The big test, he says, is to show both the young and the uninitiated that Beethoven has the energy and drive of Drake or that Johannes Brahms is as melodic as Adele.

He has been doing that since first playing violin in Venezuela's famous music education program, El Sistema, and now is music director of that effort.

He says he wants to make sure people see the life of classical music. If it isn't done, the music will be "like Egypt. People will visit the pyramids and will see us as something really strange there. And it's not like that."

While he is a new-music advocate, he says he is not sad to be doing a rather traditional concert this weekend. The Beethoven symphony will be joined by Richard Wagner's overture to "Tannhauser" and Richard Strauss's "Don Juan" tone poem.

"It is music of faith and hope," he says of the Beethoven symphony. "It's also a very important symbol for our times, because we are living in times of pessimism a lot, or times of conflict."

He is replacing Christoph von Dohnanyi, who is dealing with a hairline pelvic fracture.

The concerts are coming at the end of what was to be a week off — "which I never get," he says with a grin. But it turned into a chance to conduct the Pittsburgh orchestra — something he didn't want to pass up, he says, because of the orchestra's "deep, special sound."

That sound, by the way, also "makes me nervous to be in front of them," he adds.

Nerves would not appear to play a role for Dudamel. He is busy and constantly finding ways of advancing music in every way.

He has been conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009 and has extended his contract to the 2021-22 season. The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles was founded to mirror the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which he began conducting in 1993.

The Simon Bolivar orchestra travels throughout the world; just before his arrival in Pittsburgh, it had presented the nine Beethoven symphonies in Vienna.

Besides guest conducting all over the world, Dudamel also is the music director of El Sistema, the program in Venezuela that encourages social development through music education and participation.

He also has shown great diversity in his recordings as he has presented classical favorites as well as new works and fresh pieces he has called "Discoveries."

Dudamel also has been something of a media star, appearing on Amazon TV's "Mozart in the Jungle," "60 Minutes" and the talk shows of Jay Leno, Stephen Colbert and Conan O'Brien.

He led the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles with Beyonce, Coldplay and Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl in 2016, and in 2017 became the youngest conductor to ever do the New Year's Day concert in Vienna.

But while he has become something of a rock star of the classical world, he insists he is simply doing a job.

"I feel I am one musician more of the orchestra," he says.

Bob Karlovits is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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