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L.A. welcomes Phil's Dudamel with joy

Five hours of harmony -- in the music and in the Bowl crowd -- are capped by cheers and fireworks.

October 04, 2009|Reed Johnson and David Ng

With a wide array of accents and a distinctively L.A. feel, a rainbow coalition of musical acts and a fired-up Hollywood Bowl crowd welcomed Gustavo Dudamel on Saturday night to his new position as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The 28-year-old conductor, who arrived in town earlier this week, was naturally the piece de resistance of the five-hour free concert, dubbed "?Bienvenido Gustavo!" in his honor. He concluded the evening in rousing fashion, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

After taking his initial bow at the end of the symphony, Dudamel locked arms with his musicians and soloists to acknowledge the waves of applause. Then he addressed the crowd in English and Spanish, saying, "This is a very special moment for my life."

Alluding to the theme of universal brotherly harmony expressed in Beethoven's masterpiece, Dudamel also spoke of the importance of unity in the Western Hemisphere, which he described as "our complete continent together, not north and south."

"I'm very proud to be Latino, Venezuelan," he said. "I'm very proud to be a South American. But I'm very proud to be American."

The concluding fireworks over the Hollywood Bowl spelled out "Bienvenido Gustavo," as the conductor led his orchestra in the evening's third and final rendition of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

The tumultuous Ninth capped a program that spanned classical, jazz, gospel, pop, rock, Cuban and Latin regional music, performed mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish, by both professional musicians and polished student amateurs. Sometimes the two jammed together, as in a program of Stevie Wonder tunes by bassist Flea of the rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers leading students from his Silver Lake Conservatory of Music.

"Music education for the children! Arts for the children!" Flea yelled to thunderous cheers at the end of the group's set.

Youth arts education, a particular passion of Dudamel's, was a leitmotif of the evening. As the star pupil and apotheosis of Venezuela's national music education program, El Sistema, Dudamel already has staked out a commitment to working with L.A. youth. He demonstrated that Saturday night by conducting the year-old Youth Orchestra L.A. in a portion of the "Ode to Joy."

The Bowl crowd was every bit as diverse as the program, if not more so. The evening's open-air celebrations, with patrons salsa-dancing to the Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad band on the Bowl plaza and picnickers toting provisions to their seats, had the feel of a mini-Mardi Gras.

There also were touches of Oscar night in the form of surprise celebrity presenters, including members of the L.A.-favorite alternative band Ozomatli and actors Andy Garcia and Jack Black. "So I'm kind of a big deal," Black deadpanned, "but so's this Gustavo Dudamel guy. Dude's on fire. And what he's doing for classical music is outrageous, especially on music education for our kids."

Pilar Otaiza, a Venezuelan native who moved to Los Angeles three years ago, was among the revelers. Waving a Venezuelan flag as she boogied outside the Bowl gift shop -- which was doing a brisk business in $10 "Bienvenido Gustavo" T-shirts -- Otaiza said she had seen the charismatic maestro perform as a youngster in Venezuela.

Speaking in Spanish, she predicted that Dudamel's appointment would "elevate the self-esteem of Latinos" in Southern California. "It's going to create a space for them to integrate into North American society," she said.

Good wishes for Dudamel and fervid expressions of gratitude and civic consciousness reverberated from the Bowl stage into the surrounding Hollywood Hills.

Many of the acts were performing for the first time in the landmark venue. "See, we're from Pacoima, so this is like being in heaven for us," said Andrae Crouch, leading the New Christ Memorial Church choir.

But even seasoned pros seemed genuinely moved to find themselves at such an event, in such company. Pianist Herbie Hancock, who accompanied the Los Angeles County High School for the Art's Jazz Band, described it as a "day of firsts." He then cited, in addition to Dudamel's debut Bowl concert as music director, the "special, one-of-a-kind collaborations . . . inspired by Gustavo's connection to the younger generation."

To meet Dudamel's exacting standards for sound, the Bowl's technical staff deployed 120 microphones around the venue and a small army of sound engineers. The conductor had wanted a lot of warmth, especially from the string section. That meant placing microphones farther away from one another than normal to create a deeper soundscape. The musicians of the Phil also were individually miked.

The Phil's musicians were obviously up for the occasion. "He has every possible color Izod shirt in the world," a change from Dudamel's predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, "who always wore black," said Daniel Rothmuller, a cellist. "What can I say, I'm high on Gustavo. He makes us not nervous when we perform."

No one appeared to be more pleased than Deborah Borda, the Phil's president, who introduced Dudamel alongside conductor John Williams. She also read a letter of congratulations she'd received that morning from President Obama.

"There's an energy in the air that one rarely experiences," she said. "That Gustavo chose to open his time here with an emphasis on youth -- I'm overwhelmed."

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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