Before Gustavo Dudamel's arrival this week, members of the New York Philharmonic -- the orchestra known as the "conductor eater" -- e-mailed one another that YouTube video clip of the young maestro, the rollicking one in which he leads his Venezuelan youth orchestra in some of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" score, with the musicians rising from their seats to shout "Mambo!" twirling their horns and finally dancing with their instruments in hand.
"That made the rounds," said Carter Brey, the Philharmonic's ever-elegant principal cello player, who quickly added, "I would love to get up and dance. I'd love to mambo."
Brey was carrying a takeout cup of coffee through the employee entrance of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall during a break in rehearsal Wednesday morning, a day before the 26-year-old Dudamel's official debut as guest conductor of the 165-year-old orchestra.
This was the players' second rehearsal with the future music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; on Tuesday, he had been introduced to the New York musicians by their usual leader, a man who knows something about conducting prodigies, 76-year-old Lorin Maazel, who first took the podium at 8 and was holding forth in the Hollywood Bowl a year later. Then Dudamel told them how honored he was to be here and suggested they basically ignore his behavior for the first few minutes, "because my hands will be shaking," as one player recalled the remark.
Perhaps he was nervous, or perhaps merely disarming his elders. By Wednesday, there certainly was no quiver in Dudamel's hand or voice as he took the New York Phil through the final movement of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, the culminating piece of the concerts scheduled through the weekend, then Tuesday night. Sometimes his instructions were broad ("More dramatic, put all your soul in this place") but other times micro, as when he used his baton to demonstrate the bowing he wanted from the strings. He showed them his Whirling Dervish conducting style too -- he didn't hold that back for lack of an audience. At one point, his left hand became a blur, thrusting toward the violins like a Vegas blackjack dealer dishing out cards in hyper-speed. A couple of times he leaned far back on the podium, as if about to do the limbo under the bar keeping him from tumbling into the orchestra section of the Philharmonic's home auditorium.
Those seats were empty, except for a reporter and two visitors -- a retired first violinist of the Philharmonic and his wife, who had come in from the suburbs for an advance peek at what the fuss was about. Gabriel Banat, now 81, performed on the stage here for a quarter of a century, when he and his mates gained a reputation for making life hard for snot-nosed pretenders who thought themselves worthy of wielding a baton here. The problem was that some visiting conductors had little to offer, he said -- they'd bore the orchestra -- while others were too intimidated.
"They're afraid. This is New York. This is the Philharmonic. So they show their worst, not their best." What else could the musicians do? "We were trying not to let them ruin themselves," Banat explained.
Now he watched closely as Dudamel hashed out with the Philharmonic's current lead violinist, concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, the final measures of the Prokofiev piece, when most of the strings stop playing, leaving a few principals -- including Dicterow and Brey, the cellist -- to carry the day. Dicterow thought the young conductor might be taking this part a bit too vigorously, making them go impossibly fast.
"Maybe we try this. If it works, OK," Dudamel said. "If not, we change."
Then he led them through those measures again -- just as fast -- and Dicterow dutifully went along, just exaggerating the frenzy of his bowing, then breaking into a laugh when they were done.
Eyes on the hotshot
It was two days before the paid critics would have their say, but from 15 rows back in the otherwise empty house, old-timer Banat was ready with his review of the classical music world's new hotshot with the bouncing head of curls: "He's got this orchestra in the palm of his hand," the 81-year-old declared. "He's got the technique of Rattle and the spark of Bernstein."
A couple of hours after the rehearsal, Dicterow offered his preliminary take: This up-tempo program suited Dudamel well, the concertmaster said, but he'd like to see how the Venezuelan handles more "reflective" music -- Beethoven, say, or Brahms. And what was that business about saying he'd do the end slower, "then that didn't happen."
That said, "for a 26-year-old young man, it's amazing," the violinist went on. Plus, "It's not put-on. It's basically him. He's so impassioned . . . with very strong opinions he puts across so palatably." Oh yes, "he's just a lovely human being."