Gustavo Dudamel learns to conduct his career

(Susana Gonzalez/for The Times)

At any given moment, Gustavo Dudamel might be catching a red-eye flight to Sweden, rehearsing young musicians in Venezuela, blazing a path through Mahler’s First in Los Angeles or brainstorming with the head of his record label in Germany.

Then there are the endless hours spent memorizing brain-racking orchestral scores. And the countless weeks devoted to the type of social and educational programs that once helped catapult Dudamel from a working-class provincial Venezuelan boyhood to the top of the world’s classical conducting ranks.

Such is life these days for the globe-trotting 28-year-old who on Oct. 3 will inaugurate his five-year appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen.


“He said to me the other day he wishes there were 600 days in a year,” said Edward Smith, chief executive of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony, Dudamel’s other principal conducting gig. “Of course, he’s doing too much, by anybody’s normal standard, and I think he’s beginning to realize it. But what is too much for Gustavo? What might be too much for an ordinary guy isn’t too much for Gustavo.”

Not for now, anyway, it appears. But Dudamel’s burgeoning career offers a case study in the increasingly complex demands placed on top conductors and celebrity soloists.

In a classical world that’s eager to embrace charismatic talent and showcase it via a proliferating number of multimedia platforms, Dudamel represents both an artistic godsend and a marketer’s dream, as evidenced by the massive L.A. Philharmonic banners in English and Spanish heralding his arrival.

“Almost overnight, the 28-year-old conductor has become the Barack Obama of classical music -- for struggling orchestras around the world he is now, Obama-like, The One,” Martin Kettle wrote in February in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

So far, by all accounts, Dudamel is gracefully managing the pressures and peripatetic existence known to other world-class musicians, including his soon-to-be neighbor, the superstar tenor Plácido Domingo, who directs L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (among many commitments). Talent of such order is rare and therefore likely to be in demand on a global scale and a 24/7 timetable.

“Gone are the days when a music director just lives in one town and never leaves,” said Deborah Borda, the L.A. Philharmonic’s president. “The world has changed. It’s changed in terms of the Internet and digital platforms. It’s also changed in terms of supersonic travel.”


The philharmonic has shown its confidence by making Dudamel the second-youngest music director in the organization’s history.

But with big opportunities come challenges measured in frequent-flier miles, contractual pledges and relentless media requests. That can be a tall order even for an artist with the evident stamina of Dudamel, who wasn’t available to comment for this story, largely due to his intense touring schedule.

Dudamel will be limiting outside recordings to one or two a year and focusing his guest conducting on a select few venues. This season he’s on tap for 30 L.A. concerts and 18 in Gothenburg, plus touring engagements with both orchestras. In June he’ll tour Scandinavia and Russia with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. And he’ll be spending long stretches of February, March and April in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

“The problem with Gustavo is just simply one of demand, that so many people want to work with him,” his manager, Mark Newbanks, said from his London office at Askonas Holt, whose client roster is a virtual Who’s Who of top classical talent. “Managing that, how do you say no in a very pleasant way. . . . Gustavo has difficulty saying no. I’ll never forget, one of the first things we taught him was how to say ‘maybe.’ ”

To help map his career and juggle his obligations, Dudamel relies on a team headed by Newbanks and Mary Lou Falcone, his New York-based public relations representative, as well as on a supportive cast of confidants and creative collaborators. None is more valued than his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, the conductor, educator and impresario who built Venezuela’s El Sistema national music training program into one of the most successful of its kind in the world, with Dudamel as his star protege.

Dudamel also keeps close counsel with his wife, Eloísa Maturén, a journalist, dancer and choreographer who often discusses artistic matters with her husband and has helped him to harness the Internet and its social networking platforms.

“She will say things to Gustavo, usually in Spanish, extraordinarily perceptive things about a performance or a performer that we [others] maybe will feel more inhibited” about expressing, Smith said.

Above all, friends and associates say, Dudamel relies on his own judgment and instincts.

Newbanks said that the conductor’s backstage bonhomie leads some people to underestimate his resolve in setting priorities for himself and his players.

“There is this social element to his thinking that is extraordinary,” Newbanks said. “When you talk to Gustavo it’s not always easy to know what he’s going to say yes to and what he’s going to say no to, because he has an agenda.”

Topping that agenda is Dudamel’s devotion to the Bolívar orchestra and to helping youths in Venezuela, Los Angeles and elsewhere obtain the same opportunities he had. “Every day that he’s out of Caracas I think he feels that he should be there,” Smith said. “It’s not a duty; it’s a passion, it’s a religion.”

In searching for insights on Dudamel’s creative regimen, it’s tempting to posit analogies with brand-name athletes or pop stars. Dudamel sometimes gets cited alongside David Beckham and Kobe Bryant, international rock gods of the sporting universe. But those comparisons are misleading, and not only because the L.A. Philharmonic is unlikely to start selling Dudamel bobble-head dolls. In contrast to the meteoric flash and flameout of many pop and athletic stars, the careers of classical musicians are most often long-term investments that must be tended over decades.

“When you’re very young, the tendency for every artist is to take every door that flies open,” Falcone said. “We are the team that works for the long arc, for the arc 30, 40 years down the road.”

Dudamel’s associates say they’re mindful of helping him not become overcommitted or overexposed, particularly in key markets such as New York, where backlashes can quickly follow adulation. Accordingly, over the next few years the conductor will be consolidating his work and travel schedule. Besides his music directorships with Los Angeles, Gothenburg and the Bolívar orchestra,he’ll be guest conducting mainly with the Vienna, Berlin, New York and Chicago orchestras, but never all four in one season.

Also, he will focus his outside output of CDs, DVDs and download-only recordings on one or two recordings per year.

“I would say from a recording point of view Gustavo isn’t doing too much,” but rather the right amount, said Michael Lang, president of Deutsche Grammophon/Decca, which has the conductor under exclusive contract.

One way in which Dudamel and his contemporaries clearly differ from their predecessors 20 and 30 years ago is in the need to maintain a higher visual, as well as audio, profile. When Berlin Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle (the British maestro to whom Dudamel frequently is compared) launched his career, live performances and audio recordings were chiefly what mattered.

Today there’s a much greater emphasis on a classical performer’s camera-readiness and on meeting consumer demand for instant gratification. Dudamel’s free, Target-sponsored “¡Bienvenido Gustavo!” concert on Oct. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl will be webcast live in high-definition on the L.A. Philharmonic website, a technical first for the landmark venue. His Oct. 8 gala concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall will be simulcast across the street at the Music Center Plaza on gigantic screens, another first for the philharmonic. That concert also will be taped for a Deutsche Grammophon DVD recording that will be aired on PBS.

The L.A. Philharmonic also is launching a “microsite” celebrating Dudamel’s arrival that will include videos, multimedia content and a new interactive online game and iPhone application, Bravo Gustavo. The game allows users to interact with Dudamel and the philharmonic performing Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” with an adjustable-speed mobile device that functions as a conductor’s baton.

Among those in Dudamel’s artistic inner circle will be John Adams, the American composer recently appointed as the philharmonic’s creative chairman. Adams, who literally wrote the book on how to manage a classical music career (his memoir, “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life”), said Dudamel’s artistic development benefited greatly from his long tenure with El Sistema and the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which allowed him to mature and take risks in a highly supportive environment.

“He wasn’t under some horrible spotlight, and by the time the world discovered [him] he had this incredible expertise and confidence that is very rare,” Adams said.

What is unknown about his colleague, he continued, “is which direction he will grow.” Young artists sometimes feel pressured by ticket buyers’ expectations and marketing departments’ promotional imperatives to hew to a fairly limited repertoire, Adams said. “You could very easily spend your life going around the world conducting the Mahler Fifth and getting an immediate standing ovation and doing a love fest.”

Fortunately, Adams said, “the L.A. Phil is absolutely the model of fearless and creative programming.” Indeed, Dudamel’s inaugural season is packed with challenging pieces and world premieres.

Colleagues and friends agree that settling into their new L.A. life will afford some much-needed private time for Dudamel and Maturén. The couple have leased a residence here and have stated their desire to start a family.

“He tends to exhaust himself by getting on planes,” Newbanks said. “This is a great time for him to slow down a bit and spend some more time with his wife. They love to cook together, they love to read together, they love to listen to music together, they love to dance together.”

What it all comes down to, Borda said, is building a creative environment that will enable the young maestro to fulfill his primary duty: step onstage and make great music.

“You have to free artists so that they can dwell in their own artistic realm for a certain amount of time,” she said. “Because if you turn them into media machines or administrators, I think it can at a certain point diminish the artistic growth and vision. And so what we are very committed to . . . is to nurture that.”