March 30, 2022

SCA professor Ted Braun on Gustavo Dudamel documentary ¡Viva Maestro!

By Hugh Hart

The first four notes. That's what Gustavo Dudamel focused on when he rehearsed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. That iconic ba ba ba BOMM motif also served as entry point Viva Maestro!, Ted Braun's new documentary about Los Angeles Philharmonic's charismatic Music and Artistic Director that opens April 8 in L.A. and New York. Braun, who teaches screenwriting at School of Cinematic Arts, says "The film was initially intended to be about the genius of Gustavo and the artistry of conducting. It's not just some person with magic hands who imposes ideas upon a group of technicians in the orchestra. I wanted to capture this fluid dynamic that happens back and forth between an orchestra and a conductor."

Ted Braun (center) Photo Credit: América Méndez

In documenting Dudamel's interplay with his musicians, Braun demonstrates the difference between good and great. He says "When you hear the orchestra play the Fifth for Gustavo, you'd probably think 'Sounds fine to me.' But no, it's not fine." Dudamel gently critiques the musicians' lack of precision and passion, repeating the introduction time and again until their performance sparkles. Braun says, "We want you to start hearing the music with Gustavo's ears."

Viva Maestro! is presented from the vantage point of a connoisseur. Braun played bassoon in his youth and nearly opted for a career in classical music. Instead, he's toggled between the classroom and the film world. In 2007 he made the acclaimed Dafur Now documentary. In 2016, his Betting on Zero documentary screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, where publicist Howard Bragman approached Braun about taking on Dudamel as his next subject. Meetings ensued and in February 2017, Braun and his crew joined Dudamel in Caracas to film the maestro on his home turf. Rehearsals there proved joyous as Dudamel connected with old friends and young players who'd come up in the same El Sistema network of free music schools that trained him.

But the city itself was mired in misery. 

"It was a very difficult place to work," says Braun. "The inflation rate was the highest in world - about 450 percent - and Caracas was ranked among the most dangerous cities on the planet. We had four armed guards everywhere we went along with a backup vehicle for the equipment and a backup vehicle for us, in the event of an attempted carjacking. Kidnapping was common. Rehearsals had to finish in the afternoon so everyone could get home before dark."

After Caracas, Braun followed Dudamel and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra through a three city-tour of Europe, filming concerts with a four-camera system. He says, "We didn't want to illustrate the music, which is what you see so often on televised concerts: 'The winds are playing, then the brass, here comes the percussion and now we're back to the conductor.' We wanted to film performances not with our eyes or our ears, but with our heart." 

After wowing crowds in Barcelona, Hamburg and Vienna, the Venezuelan musicians met with a brutal reality check when they got home. As Dudamel watched from Los Angeles, Braun notes, "Street protests erupted and carried on for 100 days. When Gustavo learned that one of the people killed in the protests had been a student in El Sistema that became a real turning point."

Early in the film, Dudamel had told the camera "I don't do politics." But now, he changed. "Gustavo could no longer stand on the sidelines without speaking out," Braun says. When Dudamel went public with concerns about the government’s actions it became impossible for him to return to Venezuela, even to attend the funeral of his beloved mentor José Antonio Abreu. "Gustavo paid a stiff price," Braun says. "And that's what the film ended up being about art in a time of political crisis."

By late 2018, Braun had amassed several hundred hours of footage, including Dudamel's collaboration with Mexican composer Arturo Márquez for the L.A. Philharmonic. To edit the material, SCA faculty member Kate Amend came on board and worked with Braun over the course of nine months. "Kate was especially great at finding the most emotional material and bringing it to life," says Braun. 

Reflecting on the last few tumultuous years, on film and off, Braun credits SCA for giving him the flexibility to alternate between projects like Viva Maestro! and his responsibilities as a professor. "I'm fortunate in that the School of Cinematic Arts and the writing division are enormously supportive in working out leaves of absence or shorter-term things like re-jiggering my class schedule," he says. "It speaks to the commitment the university has to a vital, engaged faculty."