THE LIBERATOR – Gustavo Dudamel
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
It’s always a big event when a darling of the classical music world joins the film scoring fraternity. Back in the early days of the medium it was not uncommon for classical greats to work in the movies; Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, Dimitri Shostakovich, Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and many others all worked for directors at various points in their careers. These days, it’s less common for there to be crossover. John Corigliano won an Oscar for The Red Violin in 1999, his third entry into the film score world, while composers as distinguished as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman are veritable mainstays, but for the most part, today’s most eminent concert hall artists tend to stay away from the scoring stage. Once in a while, though, someone takes the big leap, and the latest to join that club is Gustavo Dudamel, the erstwhile conductor-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
33-year old Dudamel was born in Venezuela, which makes him a natural choice to score The Liberator. Director Alberto Arvelo’s film tells the epic life story of Simón Bolívar, one of the most beloved heroes in all of South America; as a military and political leader, Bolívar played a key role in Latin America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s, and is today considered one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Americas, having led several nations – including Venezuela – to freedom. The film stars Édgar Ramírez as Bolívar, and is by far the most expensive and ambitious Venezuelan film ever made.
Despite being best known as one of the world’s most dynamic and entertaining classical conductors, Gustavo Dudamel does actually have a background in composition, having initially studied at the Jacinto Lara Conservatory, before deciding to concentrate on conducting in his late teens. Having initially been asked to work only as a music adviser on The Liberator, Dudamel was eventually asked to write his very first film score after being inspired by the film’s subject matter and imagery, and impressing the director with some thematic ideas that he came up with on his own, which he demoed for the director on a piano. All I can say is that, if this music is an example of what Dudamel can write under circumstances such as that, then he has been suppressing a truly great composing talent all these years.
Performed by the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar – of which Dudamel is the artistic director – and recorded in Caracas, The Liberator is an absolute triumph – bold, sweeping, cinematically potent, musically interesting, emotionally vibrant, and making wonderful use of the orchestra in combination with several South American musical soloists and a choir. Dudamel, who describes his soundtrack as “atmospheric, post-Mahlerian music, full of tension, hope and struggle”, apparently consulted with John Williams in the preparations for this assignment, who in turn suggested that Dudamel work with orchestrator William Ross. Williams’s guidance clearly worked wonders; The Liberator is outstanding in every respect.
The opening cue, “Quien Puede Detener la Lluvia?”, is an absolute knockout. Building from haunting, evocative notes from Pedro Eustache’s trilling ethnic flutes, the piece gradually grows into an expansive orchestral theme complete with a tribal drum section, heroic horns and, eventually, a majestic choral outburst that cannot fail to elicit goose bumps. The main theme of the score interweaves in and amongst the various orchestral flourishes, and remains a little bit elusive; it’s clearly there, leading the melodic presence of several cues, but it’s never truly front-and-center in the way other main themes are. This may frustrate some listeners, but actually I find it quite apt: from what little I know of Simón Bolívar and his life, he was a generally modest man, whose passion for the freedom of his people was more important to him than personal triumph. As such, the fact that his theme is subservient to the musical depiction of the lands he liberated seems quite appropriate.
Having said that, the theme is still there all the time, weaving in and out of the score in subtle, almost subliminal ways, maintaining a thematic consistency but never overwhelming the score with one-note performances. It appears on a solo trumpet in “La Caída de la República”, on warm horns accented by flutes in “Esto No Es Una Frontera, Esto Es Un Río”, and with a muted sense of anticipation and destiny in the chorally-enhanced and elegant “El Paso de los Andes”, before receiving a final, solemn statement on solo trumpet and solo piano in “El Ultimo Viaje” that has echoes of John Williams’s Born on the Fourth of July.
Much of the score is a woodwind lover’s delight. If the theme is redolent of Bolívar himself, then Eustache and his box of tricks is the soul of the continent. Some of the woodwind trills in these cues remind me a great deal of the way James Horner uses pan pipes and other ethnic woodwinds to color his action scores, and it’s very pleasing indeed to see Dudamel following his lead. Cues like “Regreso a Venezuela”, for example, feature them prominently, in combination with warm string phrases, while their inclusion into the rhythmic underbelly of several of the action sequences adds a level of nervous tension.
A prime example of this is “El 25 de Septiembre de 1828”, a strong and driving action sequence which is full of the sound and fury of blaring brass and throbbing percussion, including rattles, shakers and woodblocks, but which is also laced with more intimate reflections from a solo guitar and Eustache’s flutes. These stylistics continue in later cues such as the restless “Destierro a Cartagena”, “Angostura”, and the thunderous “Boyacá”, underscoring the courageous feats Bolívar had to undertake to secure victory.
These are counterbalanced by the light, almost whimsical music in “Paris”, and the intimate romance of “Fanny du Villars”, which has a warm and elegant oboe solo as its centerpiece. Later, in the more tragedy-laden “Jamaica”, the solo guitar takes over the lead performance. Best of all is the poignant choral piece “Ellos Están Con Nosotros”, which has a spiritual reverence that is sublimely moving and builds to a stunning climax.
One of the other highlight cues of the score is “María Teresa”, which highlights the turbulent and eventually doomed relationship with his first wife, and runs the gamut of emotions, from the expressive romantic longing of a solo cello, gorgeous piano and oboe textures, and more tragic woodwind writing that laments for her eventual death of typhoid. This cue, more than most of the others, really showcases Dudamel’s grasp of the conflicting, complicated emotions inherent in the story, and the way he is able to successfully convey those emotions through music.
I really can’t praise The Liberator highly enough. The work of Dudamel, the young performers in the orchestra in Venezuela, Pedro Eustache, and orchestrator William Ross, is absolutely first rate, easily the equal of anything written so far in 2014. Had this score been written by Dudamel’s good friend John Williams, it would have been the most anticipated and subsequently lauded project of the year; as it is, I’m making it my mission to praise and publicly celebrate this wonderful achievement as much as I can. I can only say that I hope Gustavo Dudamel reneges on his statement that this will be his first – and last – foray into the world of film music. Dudamel’s talent as a composer is too great to be limited to this one outing. Expect this to pick up an Academy Award nomination in early 2015; it’s one of the scores of the year.
Buy the Liberator soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Quien Puede Detener la Lluvia? (3:52)
- El 25 de Septiembre de 1828 (4:41)
- Regreso a Venezuela (3:51)
- María Teresa (6:42)
- París (1:22)
- Fanny du Villars (1:17)
- La Caída de la República (3:11)
- Destierro a Cartagena (3:24)
- Esto No Es Una Frontera, Esto Es Un Río (4:01)
- Jamaica (2:25)
- Angostura (1:58)
- El Paso de los Andes (4:04)
- Ellos Están Con Nosotros (3:28)
- Boyacá (2:42)
- Muere el Mariscal (1:29)
- Manuela (1:54)
- El Último Viaje (3:39)
- Maria Teresa’s Farewell (iTunes Exclusive Bonus Track) (4:24)
Running Time: 54 minutes 12 seconds
Deutsche Grammophon 002105402 (2014)
Music composed and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Performed by Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar with the Coral Nacional Juvenil and Niños Cantores de Venezuela. Orchestrations by William Ross. Featured musical soloist Pedro Eustache. Recorded and mixed by Erik Swanson. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by Gustavo Dudamel and Christopher Alder.