Reporting from Caracas, Venezuela—The new global poster boy for classical music and his wife are salsa-stepping across the ballroom of the Alba Hotel. Calm, precise and seemingly always sure of their next move, Gustavo Dudamel and Eloisa Maturen grin at each other and the dozens of other couples around them as they execute perfect copas and "spot turns."
Barely two hours earlier, Dudamel, the 27-year-old conducting prodigy who will take over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in September, was beaming and waving to a packed auditorium after leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra through a thunderous performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. The concert last summer, marking the orchestra's 30th anniversary, was a rousingly nostalgic occasion, with Dudamel's elderly artistic mentor, Jose Antonio Abreu, joining his protege on stage amid a fusillade of flashing cellphone cameras, air kisses and lusty cheers.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is stepping down after 17 years at the podium to further his composing career, he will bring a rare combination of youth and experience, gravitas and exuberance, old-school European repertory knowledge and a New World willingness to break with fusty practices when necessary.
It's a dualistic outlook that Dudamel himself expresses best, in response to the frequently heard remark that he and his photogenic 28-year-old wife, a journalist and former dancer, are so, well, young to be so accomplished.
"Well, how cool, how good, that we are young!" says Dudamel, who will be in Southern California over the next two weeks conducting the Phil and the Israel Philharmonic. "Young, but I believe that we have a very mature soul. We are young, but we are old!"
The ability to embrace many qualities at once, and represent many things to different people, is a defining trait of Dudamel, the son of a trombone player and a voice teacher. From his fellow players in the Bolivar Youth Orchestra he elicits equal amounts of respect, affection and pride. From his professional peers, arts administrators and music critics he has earned glowing reviews not only for his technique but also for his poise and consideration.
"Watching him rehearse our orchestra, watching him rehearse other orchestras, showed me a lot about his ability to lead, his ability to interpret," says Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil's president. "But it always goes back, as E.M. Forster said, to connection, his ability to connect, on many different levels."
When Dudamel takes up residence in Los Angeles next fall, Borda and the Phil want to give him time to "breathe the air," to take the pulse of the city and gradually figure out how to put his imprint on the community. Fat chance. Dudamel will immediately step into a klieg light's glare of advance publicity, carrying a massive load of expectations, not only as the public face of one of the nation's top orchestras but also as an instantly prominent Latin American cultural figure in a region with 5 million Spanish-speaking residents.
Dudamel appears to be cottoning as much to L.A. as it has to him. A lifelong basketball aficionado, he has become a Lakers fan (he attended a game and met Phil Jackson), but he doesn't see why he couldn't root for the Clippers as well. ¿Por qué no? he says, characteristically -- "Why not?"
Asked if he and Maturen want to live by the beach or in the mountains, he replies in a mock-declamatory tone, "In the mountains, with a beach!" (The couple plan to start house-hunting in January.)
That outlook comes through in Dudamel's eclectic affinity for popular culture. He segues easily between the street and the salon. Last November, he took part in a photo-op wiener-eating binge at Pink's hot dog stand, which has named one of its trademark concoctions the Dude Dog in his honor.
"I want to try this!" exclaimed the man who's memorized all of Mahler's symphonies, as his namesake platter was served. "I want to try me!"
A full plate
These days, practically everyone in classical music wants to try Dudamel, wants a piece of his time, a spot in his datebook. Many world-class conductors are notoriously over-committed, but Dudamel may set a new standard. Already piling up frequent-flier miles at a furious pace, he recently extended his contract through the 2010-11 season as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, where he'll be spending about 10 weeks each year. His first season in Los Angeles will be announced in January.
The Deutsche Grammophon label showed its faith in the young conductor by signing him to a deal that already has yielded a recording with the L.A. Phil of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" that topped Billboard's classical music chart in June. His flurry of concerts in recent months has drawn nearly unanimous praise, with only the occasional grumble, like the one from a critic for the Guardian of London who lamented what he called Dudamel's "hyperactive conducting style."
In the United States, the hum of anticipation has been nearly as loud outside as inside Southern California. "Gustavo Dudamel, Better Than the Hype" read a Washington Post review of a concert last week in Virginia.
Although the Philharmonic will try to shield its new prize from getting the full Hollywood paparazzi treatment, it hasn't exactly been trying to put a lid on the buzz surrounding the man the musical blogosphere has dubbed "the Dude." "How many of you have Dudamania?" Borda asked the crowd at a post-concert talk-back last spring, to a roaring response.
Dudamel has been called the most prodigiously gifted young conductor in the world by the likes of Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. His admirers inevitably compare him to Leonard Bernstein, arguably the last maestro who was able through creative energy and force of personality to bridge the often estranged worlds of classical and popular music while attracting broad new audiences.
The young Venezuelan is conscious of the comparison. Once, he reportedly borrowed one of Bernstein's old batons to conduct a concert.