It has been a mere four years since Gustavo Dudamel began his conquest of the musical world, and he has spent that time very well indeed. The steps he has climbed to achieve his current stature include his North American debut at the Hollywood Bowl, a recording contract from Deutsche Grammophon, and guest engagements with a dozen or so major orchestras.
At the time of his debut he was 24. “At his tender age,” I wrote in this paper, “he has already mastered the crucial task ... the power to believe in the music at hand and to transfer that belief, through a responsive orchestra, to a willing audience.”
Now he takes over the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the high point in its own prestige. His leadership is already certified. Banners bearing his cherubic features flap among downtown posts, and at least one popular eatery has named its best-selling specialty in his honor. (You go to Pink’s, order a Gustavo.)
At the time of his appointment, something like a dozen orchestra managements were dancing around him, waving unsigned contracts. Credit Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s managing director, for some shrewd travel arrangements whereby she managed to be at Dudamel’s side, contract in hand, at exactly the right moment. (Eat yer collective hearts out, Chicago Symphony et al.)
The time and place couldn’t be better: a young conductor taking on the leadership of a reborn orchestra — as the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s leadership. Actually, the words young and youth and reborn encapsulate a major aspect of the Dudamel aura, and the wellness it bodes for Los Angeles’ musical future.
Dudamel owes much of his own training to Venezuelan musician and educator Jose Antonio Abreu and El Sistema, the school network that has produced a nation of musical enthusiasts ranging from tootling babies to magnificent orchestras. Not long ago, I watched and listened with mingled awe and great pleasure as Dudamel took under his wing an orchestra of kids, one of several new groups that have taken shape since his name joined the local roster.
The Beethoven Fifth was somewhat painful as a listening experience, but wonderful as a full experience of observing music being created, as the diminutive Dudamel, standing about the same height as anyone in the band, gently and with genial anecdotes shaped his raw material into something identifiable as Beethoven’s Opus 67. From this one session you could come away convinced — as some of us occasionally are not — that music does indeed have a future.
At another place, he asked the string players to put down their instruments and sing through one long passage, and that too seemed to intensify their playing at that point. Somehow, with a mixture of good humor and musical knowledge, and a mixture of Spanish and a nicely seasoned, growing command of English, the music at hand began to metamorphose into the Beethoven Fifth. Not quite, of course; this was a simplified version for kids, with the hard parts left out, and with bass drum and xylophones added to get more players into the act.
Even so, there was a lovely moment, a farewell and a promise by Dudamel to his beaming young orchestra. “In two years, I absolutely promise you, we will play the Beethoven Fifth Symphony at a youth orchestra festival in Disney Hall. Not this little arrangement, I mean. The real Fifth of Beethoven. That’s a promise.”
Any major city draws upon its cultural resources — symphony, opera, theater — to define its prestige. Los Angeles, with a resident symphony orchestra reckoned among the world’s finest, housed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a recognized architectural masterpiece, is many times blessed. One New York Times critic recently wrote about this city’s current musical upsurge as nothing less than a “continental shift.”
The choice of Dudamel to lead this orchestra is typical of the L.A. Philharmonic’s courageous leadership: a bold gesture away from hidebound tradition and toward youth, experiment and challenge, and away also from the familiar definition of the symphonic territory.
From his local debut on, Dudamel has zoomed to popularity on his many strengths: a profound understanding of the musical repertory, an equally profound power to impart this wisdom to an orchestra, and to an audience. Already it is common knowledge that tickets to Dudamel’s concerts with the Philharmonic — which begin, by the way, on November 5 — will be the hottest item in town. All this combines with Dudamel’s youthful personal appeal, which blends a grasp of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with an expressed passion for the chili dogs at Pink’s eatery. Salonen, his predecessor on the Philharmonic podium, has called him “a conducting animal.”
Dudamel is the product of a remarkable, intensive government-sponsored program in his native Venezuela, whereby qualified young musicians receive top-grade guidance from an early age. His plans for Los Angeles include serious and ongoing attention to matters of young and developing musicians. Even before he unpacked his luggage and came here to stay, he had organized a network of youth orchestras and presented programs of himself and these kids in action, ensuring a musical future for them and for the region.
Click here for “L.A. Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel.”
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.