The signing of 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel to take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic podium — snatched from the hot grasp of half a dozen other conductor-hungry American orchestras — has been a coup both musical and political, in many circles even dwarfing the coming of soccer’s David Beckham. To Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda credit redounds for the superlative end run, contract in hand; to her predecessor Ernest Fleischmann go the honors for recognizing the musical value of this remarkable young man, who will not arrive in Los Angeles to take over the orchestra until 2009. Let Ernest tell the story:
“In April 2004, the Bamberg [Germany] Symphony held its first-ever Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition. I was one of the judges, along with Jonathan Nott and a member of the orchestra. We received 300 videos, and chose 16 hopefuls to come to Bamberg. One was from Venezuela: Gustavo Dudamel, who led his Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and already there was something exciting about that video that stood out from all the others, a passionate young orchestra that seemed to be playing at the edge of its seats. The competition program consisted of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Rückert Songs, the Schubert Fifth and something contemporary from each competitor’s country. No, we didn’t inflict 16 complete Mahler Fifths on the orchestra or on ourselves; we could stop a performance when the points had been made. Only the finalists led complete performances.
“There were four finalists. Esa-Pekka joined us for the finals. By then there was simply no question that Gustavo was not only the winner; he was the kind of natural, instinctive musician that comes along rarely. His age has nothing to do with it; he had that ability to make musicians give something that they could not give otherwise.
“That November, Deborah, [vice president, artistic planning] Chad Smith and I traveled to Venezuela to see this phenomenon on his native turf. That’s when the wheels started turning. It’s an amazing thing that Deborah has accomplished in these past few weeks, by the way, literally flying in over the heads of agents and orchestra managers to sign this guy and make him our own. I think it helps that he likes it here.”