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Conducting with electricity

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel brings new energy to classical music.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2009

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel led a rehearsal for a youth orchestra in Los Angeles last year. He debuts this fall at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.


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Los Angeles

As Venezuelan conducting wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel strolls the stage of his new professional home, here in the heart of downtown, he radiates an engaging charm, a mere hint of the dynamic charisma that has helped make him a superstar well beyond the honey-toned walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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In a few short years, this 28-year-old, mop-haired maestro has shaken up the classical music world with his one-two punch of rock-star-level popularity and critically lauded turns with some of the most daunting international orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, and the New York Philharmonic.

"It's a welcome jolt across the whole classical music world," says Jesse Rosen, vice president and managing director of the League of American Orchestras. "There are all kinds of great talents but his is urgent, immediate, and revelatory. It hits you over the head. People watch him perform and they are simply blown away."

A passionate promoter of Latin American composers, Mr. Dudamel cut his musical teeth on the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the flagship troupe of his native country's fabled, three-decade-old music education program known as El Sistema. He is a frequent guest conductor and the current music director of the Swedish Gothenberg Orchestra, but the former violinist has not headed up a major US musical institution – until now. His appointment to take over for Esa-Pekka Salonen, who has helped lift the Los Angeles Philharmonic to one of the most influential orchestras in the country, has taken the tradition-bound world of Mozart and Mendelssohn by storm.

The impact of his arrival has been steadily growing in the two years since it was announced. However, unlike other dazzling prodigies, he has the potential to be not only a great conductor but also a transformational figure in the larger music world, say observers from conductors to academics, critics, and composers.

Music is fundamentally an art "of bringing artists and communities together," says composer John Adams, whose new work, "City Noir," will première under Dudamel's baton in his debut season.

He recalls a Dudamel rehearsal in Caracas, Venezuela, that he attended. He says he was overwhelmed by the connection between Dudamel, the orchestra, and the audience. "I remember seeing something like that during a performance with Leonard Bernstein," he adds.

Comparisons are inevitable, and most often this esteemed New York Philharmonic prodigy is the name that pops up. But, says outgoing New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel, "they are also odious." He, too, recalls early contact with the young conductor, back in Rio de Janeiro, when the 19-year-old Venezuelan walked away with a regional conducting competition. "I spotted him then as a natural talent with great potential," says Mr. Maazel, who adds that Dudamel will realize his promise "if he regards this appointment as a sobering event, rather than a moment for vanity." And, perhaps most important, "if he remains modest."