On Friday, for the first time ever, the Los Angeles Philharmonic could boast a sellout crowd for an installment of its “Casual Fridays” concert series at Walt Disney Concert Hall -- and the appeal was not just the chance to see a cellist or a tuba player wearing blue jeans instead of black tie.
The Dude was back in town.
For a two-week run that ends today, Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind who will take over as music director of the Philharmonic in 2009, has been in residence in Los Angeles, leading the orchestra for the first time since his appointment was announced a year ago.
Friday’s concert featured him conducting Debussy and Bartok -- the latter in a concerto played by live-wire violinist and Los Angeles native Leila Josefowicz, 30, whose youthful zest rivaled Dudamel’s.
And if his streak of critically acclaimed, sold-out concerts is any indication, Dudamania will still be at full throttle when the conductor returns on a permanent basis in October 2009.
Just ask the man himself, whom the music blogosphere has already nicknamed “The Dude” or “El Dude.” At a post-concert “talk-back” with the audience, Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., ended her remarks with a rallying cry: “How many of you have Dudamania?” The conductor with the wild curls and the infectious grin listened to the applause for only a few seconds before shooting his own hand, school-kid style, into the air.
Of course, one might expect boosterism from Borda, who gave Dudamel his U.S. debut leading the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005. She was mainly responsible for signing him to a five-year contract to replace former wunderkind Esa-Pekka Salonen, 49, who is stepping down at the end of next season, after 17 years at the helm, to concentrate on composing.
But consider this live-from-the-venue review from Rudy Wiley, a Disney Hall ticket-taker, who said you could feel the electricity even in the lobby, where more than one patron could be spotted Friday wearing a jacket bearing the Venezuelan flag. “I just gave him a nickname: I call him the super semiconductor. He has so much energy, and he’s different. He has so many moves,” Wiley said.
He added with a grin, “As the word gets around, tickets are going to get hard to get. It’s bad now, and it’s only going to get worse.”
During the last two weeks, some notable names -- including billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, actress Eva Mendes and Karen O, lead singer of the Brooklyn indie-rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- have come to Disney Hall to catch a glimpse of Dudamel’s “moves.” Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Telemundo, Spanish Associated Press, Vanity Fair, National Public Radio and local Fox station KTTV Channel 11 have all sought face time with Dudamel; most have been turned down or put off until a later date.
Already, the conductor and his wife, Eloisa Maturen, 28, are on a nickname basis with celebrity architect Frank Gehry, who designed Disney Hall: Borda reports that the couple call Gehry “Pancho,” and Gehry loves it.
Backstage on Friday, Ara Guzelimian, dean of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and a former administrator and radio producer for the Philharmonic, admitted that he had arranged a family visit around Dudamel’s engagement.
And renowned classical guitarist Pepe Romero dropped by to chat with Dudamel and Maturen, who sported a rhinestone-studded Lakers shirt under her chic black blazer; a Philharmonic board member had taken the Dude and spouse to a Lakers game.
Observed Romero with a wicked smile: “The Lakers never looked so good.”
Watching the laughing couple’s easy manner as they illustrated with animated gestures the extreme height -- and shoe size -- of the basketball players, one wondered whether Victoria and David Beckham might soon be eclipsed by a new Los Angeles “it” couple, especially since the English soccer player’s knee problems in his first year with the Los Angeles Galaxy proved that no one can sprain it like Beckham.
And in the ultimate L.A. tribute, Pink’s hot dog stand on La Brea Avenue has created a “Dudamel Dog,” which was offered to brave Philharmonic members earlier in the week at a catered luncheon at Pancho’s Place -- that is, Disney Hall. The Dude Dog ($6.75) is a stretch hot dog topped with American and Swiss cheese, “fajita mix” grilled veggies, jalapenos and tortilla chips. Philharmonic associate principal cellist Daniel Rothmuller said Dudamel consumed two.
Although the music world had begun to recognize Dudamel far sooner, the conductor came to the attention of a wider public when he was featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in February in a segment that hailed him as “the hottest thing to hit classical music since Leonard Bernstein.” And Disney Hall got a taste of Dudamel’s high-energy style in November, when he rocked the house as music director of Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
The orchestra, whose members are all under 25, is the flagship of El Sistema (the System), Venezuela’s 32-year-old program of social action through music, which has provided musical training for more than 250,000 children and teenagers, many from impoverished backgrounds.
Dudamel is perhaps the most prominent product of El Sistema. Born in 1981 to a trombonist father and a voice-teacher mother in Barquisimeto, Venezuela -- where he reportedly conducted orchestras of toy soldiers -- he joined El Sistema at age 4 and has said that through it he received his first violin and conductor’s baton, his “gifts from heaven.” He began studying violin and conducting at age 10.
In 1996, he was named music director of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, and in 1999 he became music director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. He also serves as principal conductor of the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra.
He has conducted the major orchestras of Chicago, Boston, New York and Vienna as well, and in June he’ll debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, he won’t return to Los Angeles until November, when he will lead the Israel Philharmonic at Disney Hall, then conduct the L.A. orchestra for two weeks and also go house-hunting.
At the post-concert interface with the Friday audience, he waxed more than enthusiastic about two things: the Philharmonic’s plans to launch a youth program similar to El Sistema -- YOLA, or Youth Orchestra L.A. -- and his passion for the Los Angeles musicians he will soon lead.
“The beautiful thing is, they are so open, they want to do new things,” he said. “I love them because they are happy, you know? When they are working, they open their souls.”
Times staff writer Chris Lee contributed to this report.