Conducting with electricity

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel brings new energy to classical music.

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel led a rehearsal for a youth orchestra in Los Angeles last year. He debuts this fall at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/REUTERS/FILE
Mr. Dudamel greeted members of the Venezuelan Youth Simón Bolívar Orchestra after a rehearsal in Caracas in June.

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.

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."

As Dudamel outlines his first season, which will kick off in October with a free concert at the Hollywood Bowl, it is clear that the man remains humble in the face of a "fantastic" opportunity. But his programming plans are anything but modest, with nine commissions, several world premières, not to mention themed festivals such as "Americas and Americans," a celebration of what he calls a shared "hemispheric" sound.

"I want to bring everyone together, audiences and performers," he says, adding he wants to change some perceptions. "I would like to eliminate the divisions between a North America and a South America," he says. "There is only an American music."

Such a goal is certainly pragmatic in a city of some 5 million Hispanics, says concert pianist José García-León, who specializes in Latin American music. Dudamel's history will allow him to break down the stereotype of European classical music as an exclusive realm. "He will bring Hispanics into the music hall," says Dr. García- León. "He will allow them to see that his music is theirs as well."

Inspired by Dudamel's wide-reaching and headline-producing success, US cities such as Baltimore, Boston, and Los Angeles have initiated outreach programs modeled on Venezuela's El Sistema. In Baltimore, the one-year-old OrchKids not only teaches underprivileged youth about music, but also provides health services and academic tutoring. The one-year-old Youth Orchestra LA has taken underserved youth into a music and performance program.

"His own story is so inspiring," says Michael Steinberg, director of the Cogut Center for the Humanities at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "Beyond that, this concept of hemispheric definition of music is where music is headed, this sense of inclusiveness is something he embodies and can provide leadership for."

"Dudamel is an important symbol for the success of that story," adds Mr. Rosen. Down the line, he says, the mantle of leadership is the next big frontier for the young conductor, both in terms of music programming and the role of the orchestra in a community. He is in the right place, he adds. The L.A. Philharmonic has a long tradition of spotting young talent, dating back to its hiring of the youthful Zubin Mehta, on up to the departing Esa-Pekka Salonen. "Los Angeles has a good track record of understanding what it takes to nourish and develop a young talent." This will be critical, suggests Maazel, who says Dudamel will have a bumpy road ahead proving his worthiness. "If he takes on too much of the grand repertoire too early, and any part of it fails, it will set back both his own career and that of the orchestra."

But "we are all very protective of our Gustavo," Maazel says, echoing a sentiment that seems to follow the young musician wherever he goes.

Audiences have been known to shout his name at a concert and other unfamiliar happenings have begun to intrude into the classical music halls in which he performs: Think youngsters tapping their toes, and musicians tossing their T-shirts to fans and spinning their stringed instruments like so many bluegrass fiddles.

"This isn't necessarily a bad thing," says Rosen. "Gustavo understands that inclusiveness means everyone, not just the traditional wealthy patrons."

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