The Gustavo Dudamel Whirlwind Arrives Early in L.A.


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The exuberant young Venezuelan conductor, who will take over the L.A. Philharmonic next year, comes to town riding a wave of Dudamania.

Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela -- 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.

“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 qu no? he says, characteristically -- “Why not?"

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