GUSTAVO DUDAMEL doesn’t look like a typical musical conductor. He doesn’t act like one either. He definitely doesn’t direct like one. And that’s what makes him great.IN JUST ABOUT ANY OTHER CONTEXT, IT IS AN UNREMARKABLE GESTURE: THE ESTEEMED LEADER STEPS DOWN INTO THE RANK AND FILE FOR CASUAL MINGLING AND CHITCHAT. IT HAPPENS AROUND WATERCOOLERS, IN CONFERENCE ROOMS, EVEN AFTER STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESSES.
But somehow, in this Hollywood tale, when it occurs in the starchy realm of classical music, such a departure from habit can cause monocles to drop into laps and opera glasses to fog up. Could you have ever imagined Arturo Toscanini taking a moment from his applause bath to sidle up and share a light moment with a flutist, or Leonard Bernstein doubled over with laughter alongside a double bass player?
Yet during most performances, while the audience thunders its approval after another rousing piece, conductor Gustavo Dudamel — the wild-haired, newly minted music director and conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — wanders among his musicians and gently bends their ears with a grin. That combination of rock-star charisma and easygoing affability has enabled the 29-year-old Venezuelan dynamo, who began his tenure with the esteemed orchestra last October, to capture the attention of the classical music world and earn the respect of his new co-workers in the time it takes to wave a baton.
“It means a lot to us as musicians. It’s very unusual,” says Monica Kaenzig, who is in her 17th season playing clarinet for the orchestra. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Maybe it’s happened, but not in my experience. It makes us feel like we’re all a team together and makes us want to play better for him all the time.”
“Nobody else does that,” confirms violinist Kristine Whitson, who has played with the orchestra for 20 years. “What he said, in one of our first concerts with him last fall, while he was walking around and standing next to us, was: ‘I didn’t play a note. You guys did it all.’ He doesn’t like taking all the kudos and the glory.”
The praise doesn’t stop there. The New York Times called the young maestro’s official inaugural last October as music director of the LA Phil, as it’s known, “an exceptional and exciting concert by any standard.” The Los Angeles Times said of the same show that Dudamel “led everything with confidence and urgency.” He has been featured three times on 60 Minutes, including an episode last month.
Around Los Angeles, his new home, his impact is apparent. His fervent visage can be spotted on banners hanging from light poles along major thoroughfares, on buses and billboards and on assorted pieces of merchandise. This is a town in which celebrities are as abundant as avocados, and yet in a relatively short time Gustavo Dudamel has established himself as a singular sensation.
“The response has been overwhelming,” says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. “If you walk down the street with him, people just come up and say, ‘Hello, Gustavo!’ The other day we all went to a restaurant, and you could see people turn to each other and say, ‘That’s Gustavo!’ It’s fun to watch.”
Even the mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, for whom shaking famous hands is part of the job description, was eager to weigh in on Dudamel’s impact. “Gustavo has bestowed upon Los Angeles his energetic love for the arts,” he says. “He’s a rock star of the classical world, and we are proud the City of Angels is now his home.”
Up next: a nationwide tour beginning this month with stops in San Francisco; Phoenix; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; and New York. How very rock star.