From the Archives: Sorry, Chicago, L.A.’s got Dudamel

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel in 2007.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The appointment of 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, beginning in 2009, is already having a ripple effect.

“No!” read several e-mails from disappointed Chicago Symphony musicians, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Tuesday. Wrote one of that orchestra’s major donors: “I read this story -- and wept.”

Dudamel, as it happened, had conducted the Chicago Symphony -- one of a number of U.S. orchestras searching for a new music director -- for the first time last week. Critic Andrew Patner, who reported those reactions, had concluded his review by hoping the orchestra’s board members were “carrying pens and contract paper to share with Dudamel before he leaves town.”


It was too late. Dudamel had already signed a five-year contract to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic’s current music director, who had decided he wanted to devote more time to composing and less to conducting. The orchestra had given Dudamel his U.S. conducting debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 after he won the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004.

Elsewhere in the classical world, reaction to Dudamel’s appointment has been notably positive.

“I think what is happening in L.A. is like an earthquake,” composer Osvaldo Golijov said Tuesday. “I admire Esa-Pekka Salonen perhaps more than any other musician of my generation, and I think he has the potential to be the most important composer of the generation. And Gustavo has a charisma we haven’t seen since Leonard Bernstein.”

Leon Botstein, conductor and president of Bard College, who was a jury member at the Mahler competition, said he and his fellow jurors spotted Dudamel as “a kind of fireball of energy and enthusiasm and talent, and a couple of us had the instinct that he also had that extra zip and personality to make a career.

“The real problem for him, for any wunderkind,” Botstein said Tuesday, “is the narcotic of corruption, of attention. He needs to do what J.D. Salinger did, what Philip Roth did: control, if not shun, the limelight, not succumb to it.

“Being a great musician is a matter of time,” Botstein added. “Leonard Bernstein was a great conductor -- at the end of his life. He was a gifted fireball at the beginning. But this is a wonderful, refreshing appointment. It’s good for L.A. and good for him.”


“Los Angeles has a history of appointing music directors in their 20s who do very well,” said Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, whose brother Zubin led the L.A. Phil from 1962 to 1978.

“Gustavo is only 26, but he has a fair amount of experience already. By the time 2009 rolls around, he’ll have even more experience. He’s a man with his head screwed on right. I’m very impressed with him. He will fit in wonderfully.”

At a news conference Monday officially announcing Dudamel’s appointment, Salonen said, “I was moved to tears, and so was practically everyone else,” by Dudamel’s performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the Mahler competition. “We realized this was a rare and natural talent that happens every now and then in history, but not very often.”

That impression was confirmed, Salonen said, by not only Dudamel’s Bowl debut but also a performance of Kodaly, Rachmaninoff and Bartok at Walt Disney Concert Hall in January.

“Halfway through the first piece,” Salonen said, “I whispered to my wife, ‘Jane, this is the man. There’s absolutely no question about it.’ ”

“I’m not a good speaker,” Dudamel said at the news conference, where he appeared with his wife, Eloisa. “My English is improving. I hope in one year and a half, two years, it will be really, I hope, a lot better.”


Dudamel noted that, though young, he had begun conducting at the age of 12. At 13, he became an assistant conductor and at 17 music director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the flagship of the country’s extensive music education system.

“I conducted 90 concerts a year,” he said. “That gives me some experience, and I am grateful for those opportunities.”

He also is principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden and is scheduled to make his debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic next season.

Dudamel said that he wanted to continue Salonen’s line of innovative programming but that his own plans for the orchestra would emerge gradually.

“We need to have our honeymoon together to make children. Then we have plenty of time to think about what we want to do,” he said. “In the meantime, I will study, eat, run a little bit, maybe swim.”

Although formal discussions between Dudamel and the Philharmonic began in January, the search process started “long before that,” orchestra President Deborah Borda said in an interview Monday.


“We review every single guest conductor every single time they step on the podium,” she said. “I always say, ‘Taxes and the music director leaving are inevitable.’ Both will happen. You constantly need to be thinking about this and prepare the way so that you have what I call an organic search.

“When the moment comes when the music director steps down for whatever reason, you’re in a position to deal with that on an immediate basis. I don’t believe in a public horse race. It’s very unfortunate for a guest conductor to be publicly evaluated and potentially rejected.”

Along with Chicago, the New York Philharmonic is among at least five other U.S. orchestras that will have to continue to look for music directors. Although Mehta refused to talk about its search -- including rumors that Dudamel had been in the running -- he did wonder whether Salonen might be interested “in taking another directorship.”

“I know he said he wants to compose,” Mehta said. “But in two years’ time, would he want to do that exclusively? Who knows?”

Los Angeles Times Music Critic Mark Swed contributed to this report.