NEW YORK — The hair jokes may have grown old, what with a slight fleck of gray peeking through his now shortened and tamed curls. The Dude nickname is pretty much over as well. And no longer is Gustavo Dudamel as tempted to head for Pink’s hot dog stand after conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Hollywood Bowl as he was when he first became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. He is more likely to rush home to be with his 20-month-old son, Martín, and wind down by doing his own cooking.
But however much the 31-year-old Venezuelan is now a well-established fixture on the classical music scene, not only hasn’t he slowed down, but Dudamel has just completed what may be the single most audaciously ambitious year ever attempted by a conductor.
With little regard for what may seem realistic, he has even attempted this at a time when just about everyone in classical music is being asked to cut back and in the process helped make the L.A. Phil the most successful American orchestra. As for the rest of the world, Dudamel’s remarkable capacity to think big and to get much of what he wants makes him impossible to ignore.
Not everything has worked — far from it. No one can do it all, and where such hyperactivity will lead, be it greatness or burnout, cannot be predicted. We have no science with which we can chart the progress of artistic maturity, and Dudamel is the fastest-moving target in the business. But his capacity for work is as much a phenomenon as his famed ability to lift the spirits of musicians and audiences no matter how jaded or complacent.
Dudamel began the year in Los Angeles with an unprecedented feat of conducting all the Mahler symphonies over a single two-week period (then immediately repeating it on another continent). By December, he was collecting America’s highest classical music honor, named Musical America’s 2013 Musician of the Year. He stormed New York, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Milan, and cinemas everywhere.
Biggest of all was the sight on the movie screen of Dudamel and a sea of singers for an ecstatic performance of what is usually called Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” when it was beamed live from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, in February. Dudamel’s gargantuan undertaking involved the L.A. Phil and his other orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, along with a chorus of 1,200, the singers standing on rickety risers that reached the roof of the tall Teresa Carreno Concert Hall.
That performance was the culmination of Dudamel’s Mahler Project, a complete cycle in Los Angeles followed by another in Caracas of the Austrian composer’s nine epic symphonies (and part of the unfinished apocalyptic Tenth). Counting all the performance and rehearsal time, Dudamel undertook over 27 nonstop days in L.A. and Caracas nearly 100 hours of conducting some of the most emotionally draining music ever written.
When asked about Dudamel’s project, the famously indefatigable Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who once conducted concerts in three countries in a single day, rolled his eyes and pronounced it crazy.
Dudamel’s performances could be uneven or overeager — especially scores (such as of the Fourth and the Seventh) with which the conductor has not had much experience — and contained but spotty brilliance.
But his interpretations of other symphonies, especially the Fifth (the piece that won him a conducting competition in Germany in 2003) and the Ninth (which he toured with the L.A. Phil in Europe last year), have deepened and were suffused with inspiration. By the time the Mahler Project was over, Dudamel was in an inevitable state of near collapse from mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion.
Still, the year had hardly begun and his calendar showed upcoming appearances in Los Angeles and Caracas along with the musical capitals of the world. By year’s end, Dudamel could look back at the kind of coveted big-time gigs, constant output of recordings and visibility that eminent conductors work a lifetime for yet rarely achieve. He also took home a Grammy.
He could look back, that is, if Dudamel had the time or inclination to look back. With an unending stream of new performances and new projects to prepare for (including the difficult feat of memorizing nearly all scores he conducts), he is necessarily occupied, he says, with the present and the future, not the past.
He was, in fact, startled to hear his year’s worth of activity recounted to him last month as he happily devoured a bowl of mussels at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York popular with musicians.
“It makes me feel older,” Dudamel joked about the list. He had just finished taping his first appearance on “Charlie Rose” and had taken a short break before a walk over to Lincoln Center for the Musical America ceremony, where he would be mobbed like a pop star and joined by his family and his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the famed Venezuelan music education program, El Sistema.
Still, at that moment, the mussels seemed as extraordinary to Dudamel as everything else. “I live day by day,” he said. “In that sense, it’s not something crazy that I do, not if you see it day by day.
“Well, maybe it is a little crazy,” he finally acknowledged.
That Dudamel is a conductor driven to do more than any conductor before him. This year alone he appeared at two high-profile and internationally televised gala concerts in Vienna conducting the world’s two most prestigious orchestras — the Berlin Philharmonic at the Spanish Riding School and the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual outdoor Summer Night Concert at the Schönbrunn Palace. For an outdoor concert with pop star Rubén Blades at a Caracas airfield, he faced an audience of 220,000.
He took four orchestras on international tours through three continents. He conducted operas in Los Angeles (four with the L.A. Phil) and at Italy’s famed La Scala in Milan. He gave notable world premieres by three American Pulitzer Prize-winning composers — John Adams, Steven Stucky and, 11 days before he died at 103, Elliott Carter. He served as music director of three orchestras, his six-year tenure with the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden ending in June.
After appearing in early December with the Bolívar orchestra as the centerpiece of Carnegie Hall’s “Voices From Latin America” festival, of which Dudamel was an artistic advisor, he set aside the last two weeks of the year to finish his first film score, a Venezuelan epic about the life of the country’s national hero, Simón Bolívar, by Alberto Arvelo.
That left little time off, other than a week on a Venezuelan beach in February to chill out after the Mahler Project, and another last summer in Los Angeles after putting on a two-week “Americas and Americans” festival at the Hollywood Bowl. But he also does less guest conducting than many star maestros, blocking out decent chunks of time to be in his homes in Los Feliz or Caracas with his wife, Eloísa Maturén, their son and their large extended family.
Dudamel is Abreu’s protégé in the grandeur of his ambition, and he has absorbed Abreu’s missionary zeal. The Bolívar orchestra’s worldwide tours typically include conferences and symposia on music education — as there were recently in Berkeley and New York, and as there were last summer when the orchestra went to Britain for various Cultural Olympiad residencies. The theme is always that music can transform lives. This zeal, no doubt, lends Dudamel some of his energy and, perhaps, the compulsion to constantly push his limits. The Mahler Project wasn’t Dudamel’s only seemingly “crazy” effort. Another was what he accomplished over just a matter of weeks in late spring. First there was a staged performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with the L.A. Phil in Disney Hall. Where opera companies allow six weeks or more to mount a new production, this was up and running in less than two.
At the same time he was madly learning a densely complex new opera by John Adams, “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” which the composer worked on up to almost the last minute. Dudamel, the L.A. Phil, six solo singers and chorus gave a remarkably secure performance of its concert premiere at the end of that month with a little more than a week’s rehearsal. (This March they will fully stage the work in Disney Hall and take the production to New York and Europe.)
On June 3, after the final matinee performance of “The Other Mary,” Dudamel hopped on a plane to Vienna, where he had a rehearsal the next morning with the Vienna Philharmonic for his big Schönbrunn Palace concert three days later. The Austrian capital’s social event of the season and a draw to thousands of spectators, the palace concert was yet another big production, one involving ballet dancers and television crews. The live show is now released on DVD, and on it Dudamel looks at first slightly tense, but he is soon enough cheerfully in his element.
The closest Dudamel comes to a reflection on 2012 is to call it a dream come true. And that has only encouraged him to dream on.
“You can’t imagine what he wants to do next,” his manager, Mark Newbanks, says.
Gustavo Dudamel in 2012: Take a look at the conductor’s hectic schedule.
Jan. 19-Feb. 5: Conducts a complete cycle of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela for the Mahler Project in Los Angeles.
Feb. 6: Demonstrates the meaning of “stupendous” on PBS’ “Sesame Street.”
Feb. 8-18: Repeats the full Mahler Project in Caracas, Venezuela.
Feb. 12: Wins first Grammy Award for recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony with the L.A. Phil.
Feb. 18: Conducts Mahler’s Eighth Symphony with 1,400 musicians and singers in Caracas, shown live in movie theaters internationally.
March 21-31: Six-city tour with Gothenburg Symphony to Sweden, Spain and Portugal.
April 13 and 20: Conducts Brahms symphony cycle in with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at Salle Pleyel in Paris.
April 26-May 3: Takes Berlin Philharmonic on European tour, which includes the annual May Day Europa concert, this year at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
May 18-June 3: With the L.A. Phil conducts operas “Don Giovanni” and the world premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at Disney Hall.
June 7: Conducts the annual outdoor Vienna Philharmonic concert at the Schönbrunn Palace.
June 21-July 2: Tours Britain with Bolívar orchestra as part of Cultural Olympiad, including four-day residence at Southbank in London; continues to Amsterdam, Barcelona and Madrid.
July 22: Performs with Rubén Blades and the Bolívar orchestra at Caracas’ Carlota Airport before a crowd of 220,000.
July 31 and Aug 1: Gives free outdoor concerts with Bolívar orchestra in the Venezuelan cities of Maracay and Valencia.
Aug. 12-19: His annual stint at the Hollywood Bowl features “Rigoletto” and the “Americas and Americans Festival,” where he performs for the first time with tenor Plácido Domingo.
Sept. 27-30: Opening weekend of his fourth L.A. Phil season launches with a gala dance program and the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s symphony.
Oct.: Mounts Oliver Knussen’s “Where the Wild Things Are” at Disney Hall in a multimedia staging.
Oct. 25: Conducts a special concert at La Scala for Daniel Barenboim’s 70th birthday, which included the world premiere of Elliott Carter’s “Dialogues II,” less than a month before the composer dies at 103.
Nov. 6-17: Conducts seven performances of “Rigoletto” at La Scala.
Nov. 29 -Dec. 11: U.S. tour with Bolívar orchestra to Berkeley, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, where the orchestra is the centerpiece of Carnegie Hall’s “Voices From Latin America” festival.
Dec. 6: Musical America ceremony at Lincoln Center names him 2013 Musician of the Year.
Dec. 7: Appears for the first time on “Charlie Rose.”
Dec. 17-31: Work on film score for “Bolívar.”