Perusing conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s recent and upcoming schedule is enough to make anyone feel like a serious underperformer.
In the past 12 months, Dudamel has guided the Los Angeles Philharmonic through half of its 100th season; made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York; started an ongoing lecture/seminar series at Princeton University; toured the world with multiple orchestras and — not least on his list — released the latest of his more than two dozen albums. This year, he’ll issue at least four more records and, before summer, appear on the Academy Awards telecast; close out the L.A. Phil’s centennial with the debut of a new John Adams work and a couple of Mahler symphonies; and conduct in Asia, Europe and Boston.
On Jan. 22, four days before he turns 38, he’ll receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in front of the Musicians Institute on Hollywood Boulevard.
Suggest that the presto tempo at which he works is superhuman, and he’ll just chuckle. “I feel like a child,” he says, speaking while en route to receive the Paez Medal of Art from the Venezuelan American Endowment for the Arts in December, a few days after leading a rapturously received interpretation of Verdi’s “Otello” at the Met. “I think it’s part of the dynamic of my life. I enjoy it.”
In just a decade, Dudamel has emerged as the rare, widely recognized face of classical music. He has been in California since age 28, taking over from Esa-Pekka Salonen as the L.A. Phil’s music director in 2009 and adding the title of artistic director in 2015. Dudamel arrived from his native Venezuela, where he led the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and oversaw its youth education plan, El Sistema. The media couldn’t get enough of this wunderkind: The New York Times raved, at a time when it saw no reason to praise anything coming out of Southern California, and even “60 Minutes” profiled him — three times.
“I think the fact that he’s getting a star is very appropriate because he’s not like most classical music stars,” says violinist Martin Chalifour, the L.A. Phil’s concertmaster. “He’s much more humble, and more able to communicate that what we do is very natural and from the heart. The kind of music he likes to program is made accessible to everybody, and we’re tickled that he’s a great spokesman for classical music. He deserves that star.”
Adds Simon Woods, the CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the past year: “He has something unique you cannot learn and cannot buy. It is that very special charisma — a sort of an aura around him. The music-making … is not driven by ego. It’s really driven by a deep love of the music and wanting to communicate the music in the richest possible way to the broadest possible audience.”
If Los Angeles has a limitless supply of stars, there are only a handful so identified as truly local heroes that they can unite the city beyond the 30-mile zone from the edges of the Valley to the South Bay. Yet, with a baton in his hand, Dudamel is a combination of Magic Johnson, Fernando Valenzuela and George Clooney. While the names of the downtown classical chiefs have been well-known — Salonen, Andre Previn and Zubin Mehta, plus Placido Domingo at L.A. Opera —none have become a face for the entire city, an individual who represents more than his discipline.
“He can walk down the street and he’s a celebrity,” says Graham Parker, president of Universal Music’s classics division, which includes the label to which Dudamel is signed, Deutsche Grammophon. “That’s a very exciting thing for classical music, that someone is recognized outside the classical world. He has an ability to connect with the Phil’s audience and the Spanish-speaking community and get great respect from the artistic community. He has that complete package.”
Dudamel made his U.S. conducting debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005 and, a year and a half later, debuted at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a program of Rachmaninoff, Kodály and Bartók. Seeing him lead the rehearsal for Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Chalifour remembers, was a “revelation — it seemed like he was showing us a new way to make music. It was a piece we hadn’t touched in a few years that we knew well, and he immediately took it in another direction of storytelling.”
Salonen, the music director from 1992 to 2009, pushed the L.A. Phil toward the upper reaches of American symphony orchestras, and he did so through programming and, Chalifour says, emphasizing precision and rhythm. When Dudamel took over, Chalifour notes, they were “very stiff” when it came time to play Dudamel’s specialties: Mozart, Beethoven and opera excerpts.
“Flexibility became a trademark and a goal of Gustavo’s. It’s more about the finesse of style, finishing phrases with more finesse and — this happens naturally in the course of an orchestra’s life — with personality.”
Born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Dudamel started studying violin at the age of 10, segueing to conducting in 1996 and receiving his first music director job with the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. Since 1999, he has been musical director of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, and prior to his Disney Hall debut, he had guest-conducted orchestras throughout Europe and led pit orchestras for Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” at the Berlin State Opera and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at La Scala.
It was in 2004 when Salonen first saw his successor. He was on the jury of the Bamberg Symphony Gustav Mahler-Conducting Competition, which Dudamel won, and Salonen alerted L.A. Phil CEO Deborah Borda that Dudamel was the real deal.
Eventually bringing in Dudamel fit well with Borda’s vision for the ensemble. “I think it goes back to the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall,” she told “60 Minutes” in 2008. “We didn’t simply take our programs and move. We reimagined what the Philharmonic could be and embraced a richer spectrum of music. L.A. is a contemporary city, and our goal is to maintain a laserlike focus on art and artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
When he was being recruited, Dudamel was immediately impressed with what he saw: “Possibilities,” he says, complimenting the Phil’s musicians for their openness to new ideas. “I saw a house where we can build more rooms. There was space to make that house even more beautiful and more meaningful to people. For me, that was something the L.A. Phil showed me as the way of seducing me.
“Also, the city is a city with a tradition for new things. L.A. is building things all the time in the cultural life. People may think it’s artificial, but it’s not like that. It’s an artistic and cultural city. We create the programming, the artistry, and connect with the community. I believe an orchestra is the face of the cultural life of a city.”
To celebrate the centennial, the L.A. Phil has been extraordinarily conscious of its role within the city. Opening night celebrated the Phil’s history with a bit of A to Z (John Adams to Frank Zappa); the orchestra participated in the Celebrate L.A.! street party in September; and, when the season finishes, will have performed 50 commissioned pieces.
When Dudamel returns to L.A. this month, the Phil turns its attention to Hollywood, specifically the work of John Williams for several concerts. Dudamel, whose film scoring credits include Alberto Alvero’s “The Liberator” in 2013 and conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in London last year for Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” considers Williams his “artistic father, part of our family, part of our identity.”
Deutsche Grammophon will record the concerts and hopes to use the appearance on the Oscars to further interest in Dudamel.
Film in general, Dudamel notes, “is something I grew up admiring. Arriving in L.A. and having the film world embrace us was something wonderful. That the Academy is paying homage to the Philharmonic is an honor … and a bridge to make powerful connections for the community.”
Key to Dudamel’s community-building projects is the Youth Orchestra of L.A. (YOLA), based on El Sistema, which Borda helped him launch shortly after his arrival. Current CEO Woods credited Borda and her two maestros with creating “the most dynamic, forward-looking orchestra anywhere, both for its programming and the way it thinks about relevance to different audiences and the way we reflect the world around us.”
When it comes to Dudamel, “his humanity drives a lot of what we are,” Woods offers. “He is the key to this mission of the inspirational role music has in people’s lives. When we look at work we do in the organization in touching different communities, that really speaks to his vision.”