L.A. Philharmonic's Revolutionary New Conductor

An energetic young conductor from Venezuela is taking the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic as its new music director. Gustavo Dudamel, a product of the revolutionary Venezuelan music teaching technique called "El Sistema" brings something of a rock star aura to his new post.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And last night, here in Los Angeles, the new music director of the Philharmonic conducted the season's opening gala. Gustavo Dudamel is all the rage here in L.A. He's young, Latino and his talent is recognized around the world. In the past few years, Angelinos got a preview of what's in store.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: For months, Gustavo Dudamel's likeness has been plastered on billboards and bus shelters all over town, and what a picture. His arms are thrust into the air, his head full of dark curls flying, his face lost in ecstasy. Some people stood in line for hours to get tickets to the free concert he conducted last Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl.

Ms. LEANNE HAHN(ph): I'm expecting to be flabbergasted.

JAFFE: Said Leanne Hahn, one of 18,000 lucky ticketholders. There were half a dozen opening acts, jazz, Latin, pop. Finally, with a full moon rising, Gustavo Dudamel took the stage.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

JAFFE: When the cheering finally died down, the hype dissolved in the power of Beethoven's Ninth.

(Soundbite of music, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony)

JAFFE: Dudamel is just 28 years old and the proud product of what is known in his native Venezuela as El Sistema, the system. It provides classical music training for tens of thousands of kids, many of them living in poverty.

Dudamel began playing violin at age four and started conducting at 11. When he was 18, he was named music director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, composed of El Sistema's most gifted musicians. But at a recent news conference, Dudamel wanted to make sure everyone knew one thing...

Mr. GUSTAVO DUDAMEL (Music Director, Los Angeles Philharmonic): I don't feel that I'm a protegee, you know? I don't feel that I'm a genius because I have to study a lot. I'm a little bit slow sometimes, so that's why I'm not a genius. People say oh, the wonder kid. Wonder kid? No. No.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, for the past five years, Dudamel has been in demand as a guest conductor with major orchestras around the world. But he prefers the role of music director, a position he now holds with three orchestras: The LA Phil, Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony, and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. In an interview, Dudamel said that's not as taxing as it sounds.

Mr. DUDAMEL: When you're a conductor you, of course, it's great, but when you have the chance to develop something, you know, very deep with an orchestra, talking about sound, about ideas, we are building something very important.

JAFFE: Before a rehearsal at the Bowl last Friday, Mark Swed, the classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times said that despite Dudamel's youth, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was not really taking a risk by putting him in charge.

Mr. MARK SWED (Classical music critic, Los Angeles Times): Having begun conducting as early as he did, and having had an orchestra with which to work, this has never happened before. Most conductors take up conducting in their late teens or 20s or even later, and by that point, they don't have orchestras with which they can actually practice. So the baton in his hand is utterly natural.

JAFFE: The musicians in the philharmonic seem to think Dudamel is Mr. Right. Christopher Still plays the trumpet.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STILL (Trumpet player, Los Angeles Philharmonic): After 30 seconds on the podium, it seemed as though he'd been conducting us for years. It feels as though it's more of a collaboration. At the end of the concert, he will actually turn around, step off the podium, put his arms around the musicians and bow with us. I've never seen a conductor do that before.

JAFFE: But in rehearsal, it's clear that Dudamel is not just one of the gang.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DUDAMEL: It's an element very important, please. Please, please you have to remember from the...

JAFFE: He's aware of every complexity and works relentlessly to make sure none of it is lost.

Mr. DUDAMEL: ...because everything is happening. You know, they are singing one part and then pom, pom, pom, pa, and then, fa, la, la, la, la, la, la. Ta, ta, ta, ta, po, po, po, ta, da, da, da, da. It's many things happening at the same time. We have to put all that in the kitchen, please.

JAFFE: He talks; he sings; he claps; he then plays a little air guitar to get his points across. And because there was a microphone on the podium just for this rehearsal, we now also know that Gustavo Dudamel throws himself body and soul and voice into his work.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: During the concert however, there was no mic on the podium, so you can't hear the maestro groaning along with Beethoven's greatest hit, really, you can't.

(Soundbite of music)

JAFFE: Music lovers outside of Los Angeles can hear for themselves. Last night's gala concert is available at nprmusic.org. And next spring, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic tour the country.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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