Gustavo Dudamel’s L.A. Phil deal reverberates across classical music world

"I want people to close their eyes and listen and say, 'This is the sound of the L.A. Philharmonic,'" Gustavo Dudamel said. He's pictured here conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in John Adams' "City Noir" at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“I want people to close their eyes and listen and say, ‘This is the sound of the L.A. Philharmonic,’” Gustavo Dudamel said. He’s pictured here conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in John Adams’ “City Noir” at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Gustavo Dudamel will be headlining at Walt Disney Concert Hall for at least seven more years, through the 2021-22 season. The charismatic maestro with the wild locks and exuberant baton extended his contract with the L.A. Philharmonic on Friday, ending whispers that he might leave for New York or Berlin.

The extension gives the orchestra star power and stability at a time when many symphonies are struggling with finances and trying to reach new audiences. Dudamel’s vibrancy and Venezuelan roots have made him an ideal fit for a city open to innovative programming with a bit of flash.

The deal reverberated across the classical music world. It came amid talk that Dudamel, whose old contract was set to expire in 2019, may have been sought to replace Alan Gilbert, due to step down in 2017 as music director of the New York Philharmonic. There has also been speculation about Dudamel as a successor to Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, which many consider the world’s best orchestra.


The contract agreement was announced while the Phil was winding up a tour of Asia. As part of the extension, he was given the title of artistic director to go with that of music director.

In a statement, the 34-year-old conductor said the orchestra enjoys “an unparalleled situation in the world of classical music today: great musicians, a strong community base.” He added that “conducting in the City of Angels is a magical experience, and I owe so much to so many angels and Angelenos.”

The orchestra did not disclose the deal’s financial terms. The conductor, who is also music director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela, earned $1.44 million in 2012 from the L.A. Phil, according to the orchestra’s most recent public tax filing.

“He has begun to define the intersection between artistic and social imperative,” said L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda in a telephone interview from Japan. “The longer he stays, the longer that concept becomes embedded in the DNA of the organization.”

The collaboration between Dudamel and Borda has made the orchestra one of the most acclaimed in the nation. The Phil has the largest budget of any U.S. symphony and benefits from two landmark venues — Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Dudamel, who succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as conductor in 2009, has been praised by musicians and critics for his Classical- and Romantic-era leanings while also embracing contemporary composers such as John Adams.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Thomas Morris, former chief executive of the Cleveland Orchestra, said of Dudamel’s contract extension. “It provides artistic stability.... There’s just no question about the incredible success in the creative relationship between Deborah and Gustavo.”


Dudamel’s persona is a key draw to filling seats in Disney Hall. The conductor radiates enthusiasm; watching him bend, twist and seemingly take flight in concerts is much talked about during intermissions.

Despite his Venezuelan background, however, the Phil has yet to resonate with the city’s sizable Latino population, a factor considered critical to the orchestra’s future. Dudamel’s biggest initiative toward Latinos is the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, which provides music education to immigrant and lower-income communities.

The new deal will allow L.A. audiences to further witness Dudamel’s progression from a brash, twentysomething sensation into a mature conductor who will leave his imprint on the orchestra. Before the extension news, Dudamel described his aim for the Phil.

“I want people to close their eyes and listen and say, ‘This is the sound of the L.A. Philharmonic,’” he said. “It’s power. Even if we are playing a small thing, it always has to be powerful. Why? Because we have a power in our hands that can transform the lives of people.”

Cellist Barry Gold, chairman of the orchestra’s musicians committee, said of Dudamel’s contract: “This is great news for all of us at the L.A. Phil. The immediate camaraderie and respect from the beginning between Gustavo and the musicians has continued to grow over our years together, resulting in incredible music-making.”

The extension comes as Dudamel faces an impending divorce from Eloisa Maturen, his wife of nine years. They filed papers early this month in Los Angeles Superior Court. Their only child, Martin Dudamel Maturen, was born in Los Angeles in 2011. The couple has had a Los Angeles home since Dudamel became music director; in January, he bought a new $2.4-million home in L.A., in his name alone.

Phil board member David C. Bohnett would not comment on whether Dudamel’s family situation was a factor in his decision to remain with the Phil.

“Gustavo’s relationship with the orchestra has deepened significantly. He’s had time to bring in additional new players — that’s very meaningful for him. He’s a loyal guy,” said Bohnett. “It’s a much different orchestra than when he started. He loves Los Angeles. His son lives here.”

Orchestra spokeswoman Sophie Jefferies said Dudamel’s commitment to the community and music education for kids, including YOLA, which he modeled after a similar program he attended as a child in Venezuela, “has reinvigorated ... what a music director can be.”

Dudamel is an “extraordinary talent — he’s like the unicorn among conductors working in the field today,” said David Gindler, a Phil board member. “When he took over from Esa-Pekka Salonen, it was then an outstanding orchestra. But he has taken it to new heights.”