Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shooting star

Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor who will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two years, is the brightest shooting star to streak into the classical firmament in years. His background is inspiring, his ethnicity is intriguing, and by all accounts he is a charismatic presence onstage.

Dudamel is a product of Venezuela’s outstanding music-education system for young people. He began as an 11-year-old violinist in the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra and started conducting at 15. In 2004 he won a conducting competition in Germany, among whose judges were Salonen and Ernest Fleischmann, the former general manager of the LA Philharmonic. Dudamel signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and embarked on guest engagements with major orchestras.

He made his debut with the LA Phil in 2005 in the Hollywood Bowl, first conducted the orchestra on its main stage in Disney Hall last year, also has conducted in Milan, Boston and Chicago, and debuts in Berlin, Vienna and New York next season. He is the incoming principal conductor of the Göteborg Symphony in Sweden and will continue to work with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Caracas.

As Mark Swed noted in the Los Angeles Times, LA likes young conductors. Zubin Mehta and Salonen were 26 and 34, respectively, when they were appointed. (Oldsters Carlo Maria Giulini and André Previn served between them.) And Dudamel seems a good match for a region with a growing Latino population.

Salonen’s LA Phil has been a leading sounding board for contemporary music among American orchestras. Dudamel’s reputation to date has ridden on performances of standard repertory – his debut recording paired the Beethoven Fifth and Seventh symphonies; in modern and contemporary music, he appears to be a blank slate.

A not-unlikely scenario: Salonen, who will continue to live in LA (primarily employed, he says, as a composer) and maintain an association with the orchestra, becomes its modern-music laureate, à la Pierre Boulez, while the charismatic young Dudamel wows ’em with warhorses.