Dude Is a Rock Star

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Lee

Gustavo Dudamel is the Elvis of the orchestra world, and he has the sold-out concerts to prove it. Meet the L.A. Philharmonic conductor who's bridging the generation gap--and saving classical music.

Gustavo Dudamel explodes out of his seat at the podium during a rehearsal at Los Angeles's Walt Disney Concert Hall and stands on the tips of his toes, jabbing the air violently with his conductor's baton, a look of ice pick-murderer concentration crossing his face. Arrayed in front of him, a massive choir of some 800 singers lifts its voices in an ebullient passage from Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony. Impatient with what he's heard so far, yet intent on coaxing every last bit of romantic drama from the score, the young maestro grabs a nearby microphone to address the group. "We have a phrase in Venezuela: 'You killed the tiger and now you're afraid to take the skin,'" Dudamel tells them with loose cordiality. "This is happening here. You have to take the skin! Be more in the moment!"

The tiger Dudamel is taming today--known as the "Symphony of a Thousand" because of the sheer number of performers it takes to stage--has the maestro behaving like the exacting tiger mom his musicians have come to admire. Dudamel's interpretation of Mahler's Eighth has been the most anticipated orchestral event of the season: a sold-out performance (scalpers got $850 for a pair of tickets) featuring singers from 16 local choruses and more than 250 musicians from the two orchestras he commands, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. As one of the largest-scale works in the classical concert repertoire and a singular fusion of song with symphony, Mahler's Eighth is a fitting finale for what Dudamel refers to as his "crazy dream," the Mahler Project. A series of concerts to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death, the project has Dudamel conducting all nine of the Austrian composer's completed symphonies (as well as the opening movement of his unfinished 10th and "Songs of a Wayfarer")--completely from memory. Having just finished a blockbuster run in Los Angeles, Dudamel and his orchestras depart this week for Caracas to perform the whole nine yards again.

Meet the maestro called the savior of classical music. "The Dude," as he's come to be known, is widely hailed as "the rock-star conductor," the classical world's answer to Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. The diminutive conductor is a towering figure in symphonic music, whose cultural influence belies his relatively young 31 years. With his undulating mane of corkscrew curls, ecstatic podium presence, and unabashedly modern interpretations of cherished orchestral works, Dudamel has unleashed a flood of new interest in classical music, bridging the generation gap between pension-age high-culture appreciators and younger listeners.

And the show is just beginning. "The Mahler Project is immense," says Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the L.A. Phil. "When we planned it, I don't think the two of us completely took in how big it would turn out to be." It is the kind of bar-raising command performance that audiences have come to expect from the Venezuelan wunderkind--a musician who, whether taking on a Sibelius violin concerto or a Strauss symphony, makes a policy of raising the roof whenever he performs.

The grueling project also underscores Dudamel's commitment to El Sistema--"The System"--Venezuela's tough-love musical-outreach program for youth that made the conductor what he is and still counts him as its most forward face. "An orchestra is a model for an ideal global society--a symbol," he says in his heavily accented English. "You have to create harmony. Everyone has to listen to each other, this large, complex group of people with different personalities that has to communicate. You have to have discipline. This is where The System works! The point is not to build better musicians. …