We're going to meet a young man now, a maestro who's managed to make classical music cool here in L.A. Gustavo Dudamel, the 29-year-old also known as the Dude and Gustavo the Great, took over last fall as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic. Dudamel may be from Venezuela, but he fits right in where he now resides, the Hollywood Hills.

(Soundbite of music, John Adams' "City Noir")

MONTAGNE: This is "City Noir," redolent of the smoky jazz clubs and back alleys of '40s L.A. Dudamel commissioned the piece from the composer John Adams, and it's one of the works he's taking on the Phil's U.S. tour that kicks off next week.

(Soundbite of music, John Adams' "City Noir")

MONTAGNE: I asked Dudamel about "City Noir" when we sat down recently at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Mr. GUSTAVO DUDAMEL (Music Director, L.A. Philharmonic): The "City Noir," the dark city, all the first movement is a jazz combining with crazy harmonies and melodies around the piece. For example, the beginning of the last movement, you can see the city from the hills. You can see the lights, the lights moving. And when John Adams showed me the piece and I was conducting (unintelligible) John, this is (unintelligible) the feeling to be on the hill and watching the city, it's amazing because for a composer it's very important to really describe what he wants. Sometimes it's difficult to understand, but with this music, it's so easy.

MONTAGNE: Well, I guess for you it's also welcome to L.A.

Mr. DUDAMEL: Yeah, and I love, you know, it's exactly like the city. It's really energetic. (Unintelligible) you have this trumpet, this trumpet solo in the beginning of the third movement. It's really for saxophone. You know, you need a saxophone player that move the fingers fast, and I was going too fast maybe. John told me, please, please don't kill him.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARK SWED (L.A. Times Music Critic): He's got a big mop of hair, which has become a bit of his trademark. He moves amazingly well, like a dancer. He's very physical and very, very expressive.

MONTAGNE: That's L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed. He also recently wrote that Dudamel is the happiest conductor in America.

Mr. SWED: I should have made that the happiest conductor in the world, actually. He's a very happy guy, who's also deeply serious. And he can conduct some very moving and very dark music in very moving and very, very dark ways. But there is this inner kind of upbeatness and optimism in him. It's all the more meaningful in that he does understand the other side too.

MONTAGNE: The story about Dudamel is that he grew up in a rough neighborhood. His father played trombone. His grandfather drove a truck. He was able to study music thanks to Venezuela's legendary national network of youth orchestras. The young Gustavo was playing violin at four, and very soon he discovered the baton.

Was there a moment when you, as a kid, imagined yourself as a conductor?

Mr. DUDAMEL: You know, this was a game at the beginning, you know. For me to arrive after the school to my house and put a recording in the music player and to my poppies(ph), you know, there...

MONTAGNE: Put your what did you put there?

Mr. DUDAMEL: Yes, I put the little, you know, toys there in the orchestra position and I was like, da da. Even, you know, I was stopping the recordings and rehearsing. But you know, I was seven years old. This was, you know, many years ago.

And so only when I was 12 I had the opportunity to conduct for the first time, and for me was like wow, wow. It was something like natural. And it's funny because my family never were like you have to do this, you have study. I was really never crazy boy, you know, that I was like all only study music, in my dark room, like, you know, no, don't talk to me. No, I was like really normal. I was playing, fighting, doing crazy things. But with the music always there.

MONTAGNE: It doesn't seem as if you've lost that sense of fun.

Mr. DUDAMEL: No, no. You know, the thing is with the time you have more knowledge of what you are doing. And that is natural, especially when you are a leader, when you are conducting, and you have to work with different groups. Because you have to convince the people that are in front of you of your ideas.

MONTAGNE: These musicians.

Mr. DUDAMEL: These musicians, and sometimes when I started to conduct professional orchestras around the world, I was 22 or 23, so to convince people older, you know, with a lot of experience, with a tradition of the sound of a specific piece, and maybe I have an idea and another musicians have another, and another musician have another, and this can happen in orchestra. But you have to put all that ideas in one, you know, and it's your responsibility.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DUDAMEL: Can be softer.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is Gustavo Dudamel leading rehearsal at Disney Hall. He's wearing faded jeans and a striped polo shirt, much of the time perched on a stool in front of the piano. One moment he throws back his black curls, another he puts his finger to his lips as if to say: shhh.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Dudamel has described his baton as an instrument no one hears.

But your body seems like your instrument as well.

Mr. DUDAMEL: Music is really energetic. Sometimes I'm not conducting. I don't move my hands. I don't move any part of my body. But they're following what I'm thinking. So it's a connection.

MONTAGNE: One of your signature pieces is Mahler's "First Symphony." It's a piece you've conducted about half your life.

Mr. DUDAMEL: Yes, and it's a piece that is always opening new doors. You are like, oh my God, I didn't know that. And then next time again: Oh my God, how I didn't know this detail. It's like to read a book. I love to read books and to read and to read again.

Another beautiful example is like the food. To cook you do the same thing, you know, your soup, but today I will try it with more pepper. And you taste you say, like, oh, mmm, better. And then you put another thing and that became your recipe, you know? It's yours, you know, it's personal. It's like the music. It's like life.

(Soundbite of music, Mahler's "First Symphony")

MONTAGNE: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and Mahler's "First Symphony." On Monday the orchestra begins its first national tour under its new maestro.

(Soundbite of music, Mahler's "First Symphony")

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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