• Image about Gustavo Dudamel
A LARGE PHOTO OF Dudamel enlivens the lobby of the LA Phil’s downtown headquarters. Outside the conductor’s cozy and rather spartan office is a monitor showing the live feed of a rehearsal from the adjacent Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Frank Gehry–designed marvel that serves as home base for the orchestra. On this particular day, the session is running long as Dudamel painstakingly describes to his musicians the desired union between his imagination and their instruments.

When he finally plops down in an office chair to discuss his new job, he does so with the sigh of a man tuckered out from a frenetic schedule and the grin of one who can’t wait to embrace the next task.

“Sometimes I’m awake until 2 o’clock, reading and studying,” he says. “Or we finish concerts at 11 o’clock and then go eat. This is normal life for us.

“For me, it’s an honor to be here. It’s an amazing orchestra. It’s a great family. And we can create many new things. I think here the ideas are very open. I always say Los Angeles is a place of new traditions. It’s always changing.”

Dudamel’s path to Los Angeles began in El Sistema, the government-sponsored music-education program in Venezuela in which Dudamel trained as a youngster and where, as a violinist and aspiring conductor, he met his eventual mentor,
José Antonio Abreu, the pianist, economist, educator and activist who founded the program.

Because this is a Hollywood story, cut to May 2004. The phone rings in Borda’s office. At the other end is Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was then the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director. He is breathless. Excited.

“I get a call from Europe. It’s Esa-Pekka. He says, ‘You know, this 23-year-old kid just won the [International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition]. He’s a pretty amazing conductor.’ I say, ‘Should we take a risk and book him at the Hollywood Bowl?’ ” she recalls, referring to the LA Phil’s summer home venue. “Esa-Pekka says, ‘That might be a really good idea.’ ”

And so it was that Dudamel made his American debut at the Bowl on Sept. 13, 2005. At first, the orchestra members were unsure what to make of him.

“We saw his name on the schedule a few weeks before — ‘Dudamel’ — and we said, ‘Who’s this guy?’ ” Whitson remembers. “He shows up and he’s in a polo shirt. Really young; great hair. We said, ‘Yeah, but can he conduct?’ ”

Although the temptation must have existed among the orchestra’s membership to mentally dismiss the whippersnapper, get through the show and then look forward to the postconcert wine and cheese, Whitson says that wasn’t the case.