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Dudamel, Gustavo

Gustavo Dudamel

Conductor

Venezuelan prodigy Gustavo Dudamel was just 26 years old when he was tapped to become the next music director and principal conductor of one of the world's top orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Hailed as a refreshing new Latin American talent at the podium, he will take over from Esa-Pekka Salonen when the Philharmonic's 2009-10 season begins. Dudamel is admired for his refreshing lack of ego in a profession rife with outsized personalities. "I can be very firm, but I also believe that the conductor is just another musician in the orchestra," he reflected in an interview with Alice O'Keefe in the London Independent. "When you are clear about this, it creates a magical atmosphere where everyone feels they can contribute."

Dudamel was born on January 26, 1981, in Barquisimeto, Lara, Venezuela. His introduction to classical music came from his grandmother, with whom his parents lived during his childhood. His father, Oscar, earned his living as a trombonist for a salsa band, but occasionally played with local orchestras. Emulating his father, Dudamel tried to take up the trombone himself when he was a youngster, but found his arms were too short to play it properly. But Dudamel was an ideal candidate for Venezuela's unusual musical training program, called El Sistema (The System). Founded in 1975, the government-funded program trains children as young as three to play an instrument, and then places them with a youth orchestra.

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan economist with a passion for music. Seeing that nearly every musician in Venezuela's two major orchestras was a foreigner, Abreu wanted to establish a program that would nurture Venezuelan talent. Under Abreu's guidance, El Sistema also became a social experiment, with its premise "that in the poorest slums of the world, where the pitfalls of drug addiction, crime and despair are many, life can be changed and fulfilled if children can be brought into an orchestra to play the overwhelmingly European classical repertoire," explained Ed Vulliamy, a writer for London's Observer newspaper. As Dudamel recalled in an interview with Times of London journalist Richard Morrison, "many boys from my school got pulled into gangs and drugs. But those who came along to the sistema were saved. In a youth orchestra you must be in harmony with those around you. This makes you a good person, I think."

El Sistema's smallest units are called nucleo, which are neighborhood practice groups. Dudamel first joined the choir of his local nucleo, then began learning the violin when he was ten. His leadership abilities were recognized when he was made concertmaster, or first violinist, for the children's orchestra in his home state of Lara. The first time he ever conducted was around 1994, when the teacher was late and Dudamel was told to step up to the podium so that the rehearsal could begin. He proved such a natural that he was immedi- ately named assistant conductor for the group. In 1996, at the age of just 15, he was made music director and conductor of the Lara youth orchestra.

Dudamel's talents came to the attention of Abreu, who suggested he move to Caracas, Venezuela's capital, for further study in the art of conducting. He also joined the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, or the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBNYO), and became its music director and conductor in 1999 at the age of just 18. The SBNYO has an international reputation as a first-rate youth ensemble, and as Dudamel explained to O'Keefe, "conservatories in Europe focus on individual study. In Venezuela, the most important thing is the orchestra. You create a community, with a shared objective. That's why [the SBNYO] has such a special sound: we have learnt together, as a collective."

In 2004 Dudamel won the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition, an annual event open to those 35 years of age or younger. He traveled to Bamberg, Germany, for the event, and his turn with the Bamberg Symphony marked his official debut with a professional orchestra. The Finnish-born Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was one of the judges for the Mahler Prize, and became an important mentor to Dudamel. Salonen invited him to make his debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The September of 2005 event was a sensation, with Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times noting that Dudamel "accomplished something increasingly rare and difficult at the Hollywood Bowl. He got a normally restive audience's full, immediate and rapt attention. And he kept it."

Dudamel was also noticed by other leading conductors, and benefitted from the informal tutelage of Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, and Daniel Barenboim, all considered among the world's best living conductors. Deutsche Grammophon also took notice, and signed him in 2005; his first recordings for the label were Beethoven symphonies made with the SBNYO. In 2006 Dudamel was invited to become principal conductor of Sweden's national orchestra, the Gothenburg Symphony, beginning with its 2007-08 season. In April of 2007, he was serving as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that Dudamel would succeed Salonen as its next music director when Salonen moved on to conduct London's Philharmonia Orchestra.

Though Dudamel will give up his Gothenburg post when he takes over from Salonen in 2009, he plans to continue working with the SBNYO, where he still serves as music director. There were also plans to replicate El Sistema in Los Angeles, and Dudamel began working on the "Youth Orchestra L.A." with Los Angeles Philharmonic officials shortly after accepting the job there. Modeled after El Sistema, it "may prove to be a pilot project for reinventing music education in this country," wrote Arthur Lubow in the New York Times Magazine. "This dual vision—of hundreds of thousands of young people transformed by the sistema and of a youthful conductor who can bring audiences to their feet cheering—is a powerful sign of vitality to rebut those grim-faced pulse takers who are forever proclaiming the senescence of classical music."

One of the recordings that Dudamel made for Deutsche Grammophon was for the eightieth birthday celebration for Pope Benedict XVI. Dudamel conducted the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in a concert attended by the pontiff in April of 2007. Asked by Times of London journalist Richard Morrison if he ever experienced the jitters, Dudamel replied, "I don't feel nervous in front of any orchestra. I feel only excitement, adrenalin, pleasure. I love to conduct."

For the Record …

Born Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez, January 26, 1981, in Barquisimeto, Lara, Venezuela; son of Oscar (a salsa band trombonist); married Eloísa Maturén (a journalist), 2006. Education: Attended Jacinto Lara Conservatory and Latin-American Violin Academy; studied conducting under Rodolfo Saglimbeni after 1995, and under José Antonio Abreu.

Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, music director, 1999-; debuted with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, September 2005; signed to Deutsche Grammophon label, 2005; Gothenburg Symphony, principal conductor, 2007-09; Los Angeles Philharmonic, music director, 2009-.

Awards: First prize, Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition, 2004.

Addresses: Office—Los Angeles Philharmonic, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Selected discography

Beethoven: Symphonien Nos. 5 + 7/Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Deutsche Grammophon, 2006.

Birthday Concert for Pope Benedict XVI, Deutsche Grammophon, 2007.

Bartók: Konzert für Orchester/Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon, 2007.

Mahler: Symphonie No. 5/Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Deutsche Grammophon, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Independent (London, England), August 1, 2007.

Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2005, p. E14.

New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2007, p. 32.

Observer (London, England), July 29, 2007, p. 16.

Times (London, England), February 15, 2007, p. 9.

—Carol Brennan

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