Dudamel brings it all together

Johnson is a Times staff writer.

The new global poster boy for classical music and his wife are salsa-stepping across the ballroom of the Alba Hotel. Calm, precise and seemingly always sure of their next move, Gustavo Dudamel and Eloisa Maturen grin at each other and the dozens of other couples around them as they execute perfect copas and “spot turns.”

Barely two hours earlier, Dudamel, the 27-year-old conducting prodigy who will take over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September, was beaming and waving to a packed auditorium after leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra through a thunderous performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The concert last summer, marking the orchestra’s 30th anniversary, was a rousingly nostalgic occasion, with Dudamel’s elderly artistic mentor, Jose Antonio Abreu, joining his protege on stage amid a fusillade of flashing cellphone cameras, air kisses and lusty cheers.

Dudamel’s seamless transition from virtuoso black-suited maestro to good-time party guy speaks volumes about why many in the classical music world believe the L.A. Phil has scored the coup of the decade by signing him to a five-year contract. When the charismatic South American takes over from Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is stepping down after 17 years at the podium to further his composing career, he will bring a rare combination of youth and experience, gravitas and exuberance, old-school European repertory knowledge and a New World willingness to break with fusty practices when necessary.


It’s a dualistic outlook that Dudamel himself expresses best, in response to the frequently heard remark that he and his photogenic 28-year-old wife, a journalist and former dancer, are so, well, young to be so accomplished.

“Well, how cool, how good, that we are young!” says Dudamel, who will be in Southern California over the next two weeks conducting the Phil and the Israel Philharmonic. “Young, but I believe that we have a very mature soul. We are young, but we are old!”

The ability to embrace many qualities at once, and represent many things to different people, is a defining trait of Dudamel, the son of a trombone player and a voice teacher. From his fellow players in the Bolivar Youth Orchestra he elicits equal amounts of respect, affection and pride. From his professional peers, arts administrators and music critics he has earned glowing reviews not only for his technique but also for his poise and consideration.

“Watching him rehearse our orchestra, watching him rehearse other orchestras, showed me a lot about his ability to lead, his ability to interpret,” says Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil’s president. “But it always goes back, as E.M. Forster said, to connection, his ability to connect, on many different levels.”

When Dudamel takes up residence in Los Angeles next fall, Borda and the Phil want to give him time to “breathe the air,” to take the pulse of the city and gradually figure out how to put his imprint on the community. Fat chance. Dudamel will immediately step into a klieg light’s glare of advance publicity, carrying a massive load of expectations, not only as the public face of one of the nation’s top orchestras but also as an instantly prominent Latin American cultural figure in a region with 5 million Spanish-speaking residents.

Dudamel appears to be cottoning as much to L.A. as it has to him. A lifelong basketball aficionado, he has become a Lakers fan (he attended a game and met Phil Jackson), but he doesn’t see why he couldn’t root for the Clippers as well. ¿Por que no? he says, characteristically -- “Why not?”


Asked if he and Maturen want to live by the beach or in the mountains, he replies in a mock-declamatory tone, “In the mountains, with a beach!” (The couple plan to start house-hunting in January.)

That outlook comes through in Dudamel’s eclectic affinity for popular culture. He segues easily between the street and the salon. Last November, he took part in a photo-op wiener-eating binge at Pink’s hot dog stand, which has named one of its trademark concoctions the Dude Dog in his honor.

“I want to try this!” exclaimed the man who’s memorized all of Mahler’s symphonies, as his namesake platter was served. “I want to try me!”

A full plate

These days, practically everyone in classical music wants to try Dudamel, wants a piece of his time, a spot in his datebook. Many world-class conductors are notoriously over-committed, but Dudamel may set a new standard. Already piling up frequent-flier miles at a furious pace, he recently extended his contract through the 2010-11 season as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, where he’ll be spending about 10 weeks each year. His first season in Los Angeles will be announced in January.

The Deutsche Grammophon label showed its faith in the young conductor by signing him to a deal that already has yielded a recording with the L.A. Phil of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” that topped Billboard’s classical music chart in June. His flurry of concerts in recent months has drawn nearly unanimous praise, with only the occasional grumble, like the one from a critic for the Guardian of London who lamented what he called Dudamel’s “hyperactive conducting style.”

In the United States, the hum of anticipation has been nearly as loud outside as inside Southern California. “Gustavo Dudamel, Better Than the Hype” read a Washington Post review of a concert last week in Virginia.


Although the Philharmonic will try to shield its new prize from getting the full Hollywood paparazzi treatment, it hasn’t exactly been trying to put a lid on the buzz surrounding the man the musical blogosphere has dubbed “the Dude.” “How many of you have Dudamania?” Borda asked the crowd at a post-concert talk-back last spring, to a roaring response.

Dudamel has been called the most prodigiously gifted young conductor in the world by the likes of Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. His admirers inevitably compare him to Leonard Bernstein, arguably the last maestro who was able through creative energy and force of personality to bridge the often estranged worlds of classical and popular music while attracting broad new audiences.

The young Venezuelan is conscious of the comparison. Once, he reportedly borrowed one of Bernstein’s old batons to conduct a concert.

In Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, Dudamel receives the kind of adulation normally reserved for telenovela stars and soccer players.

“Gustavo Dudamel is an inspiration, because he used to be a poor kid in Venezuela until Maestro Abreu discovered his potentials and unlocked them, and today he’s one of the most important conductors in the world,” says Shakira, the Colombian pop diva and philanthropic entrepreneur, who says Dudamel has offered to assist her with future charity projects.

Alejandro Carreno, 23, the Bolivar orchestra’s concertmaster and a longtime friend, says Dudamel’s international success can only benefit his homeland. “Gustavo is a director who belongs to the world,” says Carreno. “And if there is one thing I’m sure about Gustavo, that I would put my hand in the fire about, he never will forget his roots, and that he will never forget Venezuela, and that he will never forget our orchestra.”


Strong roots

Indeed, although he’s now a globe-trotting world citizen, Dudamel retains a strong sense of identification with his own country and the idea of giving young people the chance to make music. Raised in low-income surroundings in provincial Barquisimeto, he possesses an instinctive preference for democratic inclusiveness, especially when it comes to classical music.

“There needs to be repaired this paradigm that always existed, that classical music is for an elite, a select group of people,” he says, moving easily between Spanish and English, “and I believe that we have the opportunity, with the Hollywood Bowl, with the programming of the Bowl, and now, well, that the orchestra can take on this problem directly.”

To further that objective, Dudamel is assisting the Philharmonic’s ambitious effort to build three to five youth orchestras in the next eight to 10 years, modeled on El Sistema, Venezuela’s remarkable national youth music training program. Dudamel will conduct a Dec. 6 rehearsal of the EXPO Center Youth Orchestra, which is part of the Phil’s Youth Orchestra LA initiative.

Dudamel himself wouldn’t be where he is today without benefit of such an orchestra, at such an early age. He was hand-picked for success by Abreu, El Sistema’s founder and guiding light for the past 33 years, who spotted Dudamel’s gifts, first as a violinist, then more spectacularly as a conductor when he was 11 years old. “He’s an outstanding talent and a select spirit,” Abreu says of his star pupil.

Edward Smith, the Gothenburg Symphony’s chief executive, says Dudamel’s artistic maturity and temperamental steadiness were obvious from the night in 2005 when the orchestra’s then-principal conductor, Neeme Jarvi, fell ill, and Dudamel was hired on short notice to perform at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

As the young maestro took the stage, an ambient noise caused by an electrical fault started buzzing throughout the cavernous building. Unruffled, Dudamel calmly walked off the stage and waited 45 minutes for the problem to be fixed before returning and ripping through a dazzling performance of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Sibelius.


“I’ve never come across anything like Gustavo. Never. Anywhere,” Smith says, citing the conductor’s ability not only to quickly absorb vast numbers of scores, but also to assimilate the widely differing sounds and textures of various orchestras. “It’s a quiet self-confidence. It’s not an arrogance, and it’s not a cockiness.” And though Dudamel is best known for his richly expressionistic conducting of late-19th century composers, he has mastered an extraordinarily large repertory for such a young artist, Smith says.

Dudamel’s low-key assurance has always been part of her husband’s makeup, says Maturen. “He’s just such a humble person, and he’s very kind with people. And he’s exactly the same as the first time I met him.”

Maturen says the couple, who plan to start a family someday, are looking forward to living in Los Angeles as “a very beautiful challenge.” Still, she acknowledges some trepidation about the city’s celebrity -- or rather, celebrity-eating -- culture. “It worries me,” she says. “We have the objective of trying to keep ourselves outside the public eye that’s curious and at times morbid, no? Because the good thing is that all classical music is a little separate from this world.”

When the Phil announced that it was hiring Dudamel, the widespread chorus of approval contained a faint falsetto descant suggesting that he represented something of an unknown commodity, given his relative youth and the fact that he had never hired a musician or worked within the strict union rules of a U.S. orchestra.

“People used to say to me, ‘Well, it was a real risk you took, taking a guy that age,’ ” Borda says. “It never seemed like a risk to me. Because I knew, I was so convinced of the depth of his musical talent and understanding, and I was also so deeply convinced and committed to innovation and risk-taking on our part that I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

“The possibilities are enormous,” she says, “but we have to see how they grow. He’s his own man, and we have to let him be that.”


No one appears more patient in awaiting those possibilities than the young maestro.

“There are many things,” he says about the prospects ahead. “But I don’t like to speak about them, because sometimes when you start to talk and to talk, it’s better to have a conversation here” -- he points to his head -- “and it’s going to be fulfilled, you know? Promises and promises are terrible, and this is something we’re very accustomed to in this modern world. I try to maintain what I’m doing and I try to protect the things I dream about. Only deeds are important.”