ARTS & CULTURE

How Gustavo Dudamel made his impromptu conducting debut at the White House

At a White House ceremony Thursday afternoon, President Obama awarded the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to actor Morgan Freeman, composer Philip Glass, “Zoot Suit” playwright Luis Valdez, musician Wynton Marsalis and 20 others.

But Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel should have been given the National Medal of Spontaneity.

The Venezuelan conductor had been summoned to Washington, D.C., to deliver the keynote speech to the recipients later that evening at a private dinner at the National Gallery of Art and conduct a wind quintet from his Youth Orchestra Los Angeles.

But first: Dudamel sat in on the afternoon awards ceremony and luncheon at the White House, where he met the president and witnessed a performance by another set of musicians, the Marine Chamber Orchestra.  

Dudamel was beyond impressed, he told L.A. Philharmonic president Deborah Borda, who was sitting next to him. So much so, that he was soon conducting them himself.

“During the luncheon Gustavo remarked that the Marine Chamber Orchestra was very good,” Borda said in a phone interview. “So I asked the conductor whether she would like to have Gustavo Dudamel conduct."

The two conductors rifled through their music and found Mozart Symphony No. 25 ("Little G-Minor") — the score that opens the Milos Forman film "Amadeus."

“So Gustavo conducted the first movement,” Borda said, “and suddenly the entire place fell quiet. It was a moment of magic."  

That night, as Dudamel spoke about the need to fund children’s arts programs, he described coming to Los Angeles his first year as the L.A. Phil conductor and meeting a 12-year-old boy who wanted to join the Youth Orchestra.

“The 11 miles Adam had traveled from home must have been the most important trip of his life,” Dudamel said. “Simply put: the boy who left South Central that afternoon was not the same person upon his return.” 

The Youth Orchestra then played arrangements of Gershwin's Prelude No. 1 and Abreu's Tico-Tico no Fubá.  

But only after Dudamel had made his impromptu conducting debut at the White House.

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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