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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Gustavo Dudamel starts off at a fast tempo

The excitement is infections and he is, no question, a rare talent. But let's all keep our cool while he continues to grow.

September 27, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Electrico Gustavo, writ large on the back of buses, appears to be the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's newest source of renewable energy. Radiante Gustavo flashing on electric billboards luridly illumines the Southern California sky in competition with Nature and Her sunsets. Pasion Gustavo, in giant letters on Walt Disney Concert Hall, stirs Frank Gehry's steel.

As for me, I'm preparing for the arrival this week of Gustavo Dudamel by charging my pocket Nikon. The camera will accompany me on daily walks along the beach, where I'm determined to get the first shot of the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic walking on water.

The 28-year-old conductor from Venezuela is hailed far and wide as the savior of classical music. From the scary slums of Caracas to the hoity-toity Salzburg Festival, Dudamel has achieved rock star status. He is an inspiration to the young, the most effective advocate of music education since Leonard Bernstein. Living the notes he conducts, he sweeps listeners and players alike along with him, always making his concerts rousing events.

This is an unbelievable situation Los Angeles finds itself in. Four years ago, Dudamel, then a conducting competition winner unknown to all but professional insiders, made his U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl. Now, he is nearly as loved by the elite Vienna Philharmonic as he is by his muchachos back home in the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

But we must be cautious with our expectations. Dudamel is not going to walk on water and he is not going to single-handedly save an art form that has no need of life support. Indeed, were classical music so irrelevant to our times and needs, it could never have produced a Dudamel. Thoreau said we should walk four hours a day -- not to get anywhere but because it is good for the soul. That is the real reason to saunter on the beach or hear Dudamel conduct. Let the rest take care of itself.

Forget rock stars. All too often they find things that work and get stuck. Either they don't grow because the feedback for what they already do is so addictive or because if they try to change, they find obstinate fan resistance.

Worse, if the crowd does want more, what it usually wants is more excess. Liberace was said to have grown uncomfortable at always having to top himself. He obviously liked flamboyance, but even he had his limits, and by the end of his life he knew he had gone too far and squandered a considerable talent. Those of us who admire Lang Lang's pianism fear a similar fate. Show business eats up classical artists as hungrily as it does pop stars.

Fortunately Dudamel, who brings a unique set of qualifications to his job, has thus far shown an almost unreal ability to absorb the acclaim and remain authentic. Thanks to El Sistema, Venezuela's visionary music education program, he began playing the violin in kiddie orchestras not long after he learned to walk. His conducting apprenticeship started in boyhood, as well.

This makes Dudamel the only major conductor who ever had an orchestra on which to practice daily all through his youth. Already he has spent as much time on a podium as music directors twice, even thrice, his age. Holding a baton is as natural for Dudamel as holding a bat is for a ballplayer who came up through Little League.

And, of course, Dudamel has a rare gift for conducting, which is why an obscure youngster from Barquisimeto got the opportunities he did. Millions of children have passed through El Systema; so far we have one Dudamel.

Thus we find a remarkably finished quality to Dudamel's interpretations of symphonies by Mahler and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, works he has conducted dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times. He has a photographic memory and an agile mind. He learns new pieces very quickly and memorizes most of what he performs. This season we will see a mix of his old favorites, works just entering his repertory and many more world premieres than any music director other than his predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, normally attempts in a year.

For all that, though, Dudamel is still 28, and his maturity can only be expected to go so far. He may know a piece extremely well, but he unsurprisingly lives for the moment. Every mysterious pianissimo is pure magic. Every climax shakes the earth. And all music is pretty much the same for him -- Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Mahler, Shostakovich, Gyorgy Ligeti.

What works now for Dudamel, what is so vibrant in a conductor in his 20s, will not work for a conductor in his 40s and would be creepy for a conductor in his 60s. At the moment, Dudamel is a fully fueled rocket. He has the energy, the intelligence and the curiosity to take on a variety of new works and projects. But he has his tricks that he relies on to create excitement before he is in full command of many pieces.

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