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Maestro will pass baton to up-and-comer in '09

Salonen will leave his L.A. Philharmonic post to young Venezuelan.

April 08, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

After helping make the Los Angeles Philharmonic one of the world's most adventurous and versatile orchestras, Esa-Pekka Salonen has decided to step down as music director at the end of the 2008-09 season. His successor, the Philharmonic will announce Monday, will be Gustavo Dudamel, a charismatic 26-year-old conductor from Venezuela.

Salonen, who will still live in Los Angeles, intends to concentrate on composing, although he plans to continue to conduct the Philharmonic and other orchestras.

"I always felt that one day I would have to make the change in my own life, bite the bullet and see what it is to be a composer who conducts rather than the other way around," he said in an interview.

"There is nothing drastic or dramatic behind this," he said. "I would say it's something quite normal or organic in my case."

Already nearly as in demand as a composer as he is as a conductor, Salonen, 48, said he had long wanted to find more time to write. But his scheduled departure will still make him the longest-serving music director in the history of the Philharmonic, which was founded in 1919.

Signing Dudamel to a five-year contract as its next music director, beginning in the 2009-10 season, is a daring move by the orchestra. Audiences instantly respond to his ebullience and his curly-haired, boyish good looks. Yet although several major orchestras are believed to have been vying for him, Dudamel had never stood before a professional orchestra before taking part in a conducting competition sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony in Germany three years ago.

He was hailed as a natural on the podium and easily won that competition. Former longtime Philharmonic General Manager Ernest Fleischmann, who was among the jurors, told The Times in December: "Of the hundreds of conductors I've come across, only a few in their early 20s were of his caliber. Two others were Esa-Pekka and Simon Rattle, now music director of the Berlin Philharmonic."

Dudamel's U.S. debut was conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 2005, and it proved an immediate sensation because of the electricity of his gestures and his unbounded enthusiasm.

Since then, he has conducted some of the world's most important orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, and has conducted at Italy's La Scala opera house. Next season, he is scheduled to make his debuts with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He has also been signed to an exclusive contract by the Deutsche Grammophon record label. On Thursday night, he led the Chicago Symphony for the first time.

"Los Angeles was the first orchestra to give me the opportunity to make my U.S. debut at the very beginning of my career," Dudamel said from Chicago. "The energy was very special from the start, and I love how open to new ideas the orchestra is."

With the joint announcement of Salonen's departure and Dudamel's hiring, the Philharmonic is bypassing the typical lengthy search during which an orchestra's every guest conductor is scrutinized by the public and media as a possible candidate for its leadership.

In some cases, an orchestra can flounder for years without a music director. Nor will the Philharmonic be forced to compete with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, all of which are in the midst of conductor searches.

L.A. Philharmonic President Deborah Borda said that because Salonen has always been forthright about his desire to compose more, she began thinking about a new music director from the moment she assumed her post in 2000.

More recently, a small Artistic Liaison Committee made up of Borda, Salonen and select members of the orchestra and its board of directors quietly evaluated conductors. Borda said the response from both the players and the public to Dudamel's first concert with the Philharmonic at Disney Hall, in January, when he was even more impressive than at his Bowl appearance, is what swayed the committee.

Under the Finnish-born Salonen -- who was himself 26 when he first conducted the Philharmonic in 1984 and 34 when he became music director in 1992 -- the orchestra has become known for the dynamism of his performances and for his fresh ideas about programming. He also raised the ensemble's profile in 2003 when he ushered it into a new home at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, a venue that has made it the envy of orchestras worldwide.

Lately, the orchestra has been in the news for works it has commissioned; for such special projects as a concert presentation of the Wagner opera "Tristan and Isolde," with video by Bill Viola and staging by Peter Sellars, which it is scheduled to begin repeating Thursday; and for performances of Salonen's own music, which combines a European rigor with a West Coast pizazz.

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