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Gustavo Dudamel learns to conduct his career

An inner circle helps the maestro through the manic demands of being a top conductor in this age.

September 26, 2009|Reed Johnson

At any given moment, Gustavo Dudamel might be catching a red-eye flight to Sweden, rehearsing young musicians in Venezuela, blazing a path through Mahler's First in Los Angeles or brainstorming with the head of his record label in Germany.

Then there are the endless hours spent memorizing brain-racking orchestral scores. And the countless weeks devoted to the type of social and educational programs that once helped catapult Dudamel from a working-class provincial Venezuelan boyhood to the top of the world's classical conducting ranks.

Such is life these days for the globe-trotting 28-year-old who on Oct. 3 will inaugurate his five-year appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen.

"He said to me the other day he wishes there were 600 days in a year," said Edward Smith, chief executive of Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony, Dudamel's other principal conducting gig. "Of course, he's doing too much, by anybody's normal standard, and I think he's beginning to realize it. But what is too much for Gustavo? What might be too much for an ordinary guy isn't too much for Gustavo."

Not for now, anyway, it appears. But Dudamel's burgeoning career offers a case study in the increasingly complex demands placed on top conductors and celebrity soloists.

In a classical world that's eager to embrace charismatic talent and showcase it via a proliferating number of multimedia platforms, Dudamel represents both an artistic godsend and a marketer's dream, as evidenced by the massive L.A. Philharmonic banners in English and Spanish heralding his arrival.

"Almost overnight, the 28-year-old conductor has become the Barack Obama of classical music -- for struggling orchestras around the world he is now, Obama-like, The One," Martin Kettle wrote in February in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

So far, by all accounts, Dudamel is gracefully managing the pressures and peripatetic existence known to other world-class musicians, including his soon-to-be neighbor, the superstar tenor Placido Domingo, who directs L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (among many commitments). Talent of such order is rare and therefore likely to be in demand on a global scale and a 24/7 timetable.

"Gone are the days when a music director just lives in one town and never leaves," said Deborah Borda, the L.A. Philharmonic's president. "The world has changed. It's changed in terms of the Internet and digital platforms. It's also changed in terms of supersonic travel."

The philharmonic has shown its confidence by making Dudamel the second-youngest music director in the organization's history.

But with big opportunities come challenges measured in frequent-flier miles, contractual pledges and relentless media requests. That can be a tall order even for an artist with the evident stamina of Dudamel, who wasn't available to comment for this story, largely due to his intense touring schedule.

Dudamel will be limiting outside recordings to one or two a year and focusing his guest conducting on a select few venues. This season he's on tap for 30 L.A. concerts and 18 in Gothenburg, plus touring engagements with both orchestras. In June he'll tour Scandinavia and Russia with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. And he'll be spending long stretches of February, March and April in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

"The problem with Gustavo is just simply one of demand, that so many people want to work with him," his manager, Mark Newbanks, said from his London office at Askonas Holt, whose client roster is a virtual Who's Who of top classical talent. "Managing that, how do you say no in a very pleasant way. . . . Gustavo has difficulty saying no. I'll never forget, one of the first things we taught him was how to say 'maybe.' "

To help map his career and juggle his obligations, Dudamel relies on a team headed by Newbanks and Mary Lou Falcone, his New York-based public relations representative, as well as on a supportive cast of confidants and creative collaborators. None is more valued than his mentor, Jose Antonio Abreu, the conductor, educator and impresario who built Venezuela's El Sistema national music training program into one of the most successful of its kind in the world, with Dudamel as his star protege.

Dudamel also keeps close counsel with his wife, Eloisa Maturen, a journalist, dancer and choreographer who often discusses artistic matters with her husband and has helped him to harness the Internet and its social networking platforms.

"She will say things to Gustavo, usually in Spanish, extraordinarily perceptive things about a performance or a performer that we [others] maybe will feel more inhibited" about expressing, Smith said.

Above all, friends and associates say, Dudamel relies on his own judgment and instincts.

Newbanks said that the conductor's backstage bonhomie leads some people to underestimate his resolve in setting priorities for himself and his players.

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