Classical music loves its fair-haired boys — even when, like Leonard Bernstein, they happen to be brunets. These young, charismatic conductors capture the public imagination in ways their colleagues generally don't. Now there's a new face to consider, a 26-year-old Venezuelan named Gustavo Dudamel.
Born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, the capital of the northwestern state of Lara, Mr. Dudamel studied the violin from the age of 10 and started conducting seriously at 13. By 18 he had assumed the music directorship of the Sim‹n Bol‹var Youth Orchestra in Caracas, an ensemble he still leads. His mentor was Jos_ Antonio Abreu, who had founded the youth orchestra in 1975.
Having impressed a range of maestros — including two principal conductors of the Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle — Mr. Dudamel caught his proverbial big break in 2005, when he replaced an indisposed Neeme Järvi at a BBC Proms concert featuring Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony. The orchestra named him principal conductor the following year, a job that took effect earlier this season. Still, he remained unknown to casual concertgoers until this past April, when he was tapped as Esa-Pekka Salonen's successor as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
At the end of this month, Gustavo Dudamel makes his New York Philharmonic debut in concerts eagerly anticipated by audiences, critics, and the conductor himself. "It's an honor to be working with this great Orchestra in such a wonderful and important city," he says in Latin American-accented English. "I've been very lucky to have many rites of passage over the last two years — Los Angeles, Chicago, La Scala in Milan, the Vienna Philharmonic — and now the New York Philharmonic. How musically blessed I am!"
That's not empty encomium, for Mr. Dudamel has a special, if thus far one-sided, relationship with the Philharmonic. "I started conducting my toys when I was four years old," he says, "and through recordings, they represented all the great orchestras to me. Among them was my hero, Leonard Bernstein, with the New York Philharmonic. What energy! What joy! I just loved it."
His Philharmonic program — Carlos Chávez's Symphony No. 2, Sinfonìa India, Antonìn Dvorák's Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham, and Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 — might even be considered something of an homage to his childhood hero, for Bernstein and the Orchestra recorded both symphonies.
Yet Mr. Dudamel's choices also reflect his own eclectic tastes. "Chávez is representative of the Latin culture and for me is very special because he was the first conductor of the Simón Bolìvar Youth Orchestra," Dudamel says. "The Dvorák is a favorite piece of mine, and Gil is a great musician, so that's wonderful. As for the Prokofiev Five, I seem to be drawn to Fifth symphonies: Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and now Prokofiev. With the New York Philharmonic, I feel it is a perfect choice for their energy, which I have felt from recordings."
Though Mr. Dudamel doesn't begin his tenure in Los Angeles until September 2009 and still feels "like I'm walking through a wonderful dream," he is conscious of his growing responsibilities. "I'll still be doing some guest conducting, but far less than I do now," he says. Music lovers interested in hearing this wunderkind live should take note.
David Mermelstein is a widely published journalist and co-author of the "American Tradition" chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Conducting.