Believe the hype

Sunday afternoon, Mira grabbed me for the matinee performance by the LA Philharmonic. Classical music fans under the age of 50 are a rare breed, so I'm always glad when I can find a classical music buddy in each new town I move to. We didn't have tickets, the concert having been sold out long ago, and Craigslist prices were out of control, so we headed downtown to see what the classical music scalping scene would be like. I pictured some shady character resembling a homeless bum making eye contact with me, pulling me aside, and turning open one half of his jacket to reveal a thick stack of tickets in his breast pocket.

Having dealt only with those quick-witted scalpers I'd meet outside Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium over the years, I couldn't help but picture classical music scalpers looking and talking the same.

"What you want, brother? I got a pair, orchestra, third row. Face $120. I'll let'em go for a hundy each. Say what? Sixty? Get outta here, we talking Dudamel, man, I ain't no dummy."

We were lucky. The box office had some extras, and we snagged terrace seats. There isn't a bad seat to be had in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel conducted the orchestra in three pieces:

  • Salonen's Insomnia

  • Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 (pianist Simon Trpceski)

  • Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique

Prior to this concert, I'd only read about Dudamel in the New Yorker profile of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LA Philharmonic's current music director (whose most visible work is as conductor). This was Dudamel's first visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall since he was announced as Salonen's successor. So my opinion of Dudamel, as I walked out of the concert, was not based on anything other than his work on this afternoon.

And my judgment was this: Dudamel is the most exciting conductor of my lifetime.

In 2009-2010, Dudamel will take over from Salonen as the musical director of the LA Phil. Dudamel is 27. In tapping him, the LA Philharmonic snared the most gifted young conductor of this generation.

The orchestra sounded fantastic in a performance recorded for iTunes. Dudamel's conducting style is infectious, unmistakeable in its verve and passion, and no piece showcased it to greater effect than Symphonie Fantastique which he conducted by heart, without a score.

At times, he leapt off the podium, while at other times, he stood with arms at his side and let the orchestra just run with the music. His gestures are uninhibited and grand; his body appears to literally be a conductor of the music, all of its emotion erupting out through his hair, which from a distance reminded me of a cross between the coifs of Malcolm Gladwell and Sideshow Bob. He would've made a great horse jockey if you substituted a crop for his baton. It was the most electrifying conducting job I've ever witnessed.

It's not just on the podium that his enthusiasm comes through. In rehearsals, he must be able to communicate the emotion and musicality he seeks to musicians two to three times his age, and more than that, he has to extract that performance from them, show after show. Dudamel succeeds on both counts. Lest you think that all classical musicians are a polite and harmonious people, witness the strife in the Seattle Symphony between the musicians and their musical director Gerard Schwarz. Watching the orchestra, you could tell they love him and would follow him anywhere he leads, and video of him leading orchestras around the world seem to confirm that he's a born leader of musicians, a true prodigy in a world that's too quick to throw that term on any young, technically proficient practitioner.

When he's not conducting, Dudamel's body language is humble, boyish, and gracious. After Symphonie Fantastique, the audience erupted in applause, summoning Dudamel back out some four or five times. Each time he insisted on trying to pass the acclaim onto different members of the orchestra, never standing back on the podium but always hiding in amongst the orchestra, shaking hands with various soloists. But there was no doubt who the city had gone crazy for.

[Contrast Dudamel to Simon Trpceski, the Macedonian pianist who walked on stage wearing a cream-colored turtleneck under his sportcoat and who leapt off the piano seat at the end of his performance. Trpceski is good, but his every gesture speaks to his knowing it. Trpceski's favored response to the audience applause was to hold his hands up to either side of his head, about four feet apart, palms facing inward, and shake them forwards and backwards, as if articulating the size of his own ego. Look, you're either the type of artist who takes a promotional photo like the one below, or you aren't. Mira and I thought it was fantastic.]

On the way home, still giddy, I plugged into all the web had to say about Dudamel and realized I was hardly the first to go gaga for Gustavo. There are hints of the predictable backlash, various reviews of his albums citing him as just overhyped, more energy than nuance, and unable to carry an adagio passage to save his life. To those people, I say that we're more than delighted to have him here in LA.

If there is a Dudamel subscription package for the LA Phil next year, I'm buying.

NYTimes Sunday Magazine profile

Gustavo Dudamel on 60 Minutes (especially entertaining is this clip, "There Will Be Blood")

More good video available at the Deutsche Grammophon site for Dudamel

Time Magazine: "Gustavo Dudamel: The Natural"

Newsweek: "Gustavo Dudamel: Wunderkind"