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FIRST PERSON

The rocker and 'The Dude'

Doors drummer John Densmore reflects on a brother in music, Gustavo Dudamel.

January 01, 2010|By John Densmore
  • John Densmore, left, with Gustavo Dudamel. They have more than long hair and waving sticks in common.
John Densmore, left, with Gustavo Dudamel. They have more than long hair… (From John Densmore )

I played the Doors card to get into the green room. "Do you think the maestro [Gustavo Dudamel] would want to meet Jim Morrison's drummer?" I said to security.

On that note, my girlfriend and I were whisked backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall with film composer Charles Bernstein and his wife. Then we had to wait. And wait. "The Dude," as in the hot dog named after him at Pink's, was changing from his tuxedo into a polo shirt and slacks after conducting an incredibly powerful "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz.

When we finally were led into the inner sanctum, it was packed with classical music's literati. Plácido Domingo's son introduced himself, and the rest of the crowd looked very important. Not as important as the man of the hour (or 21st century), who smiled at me and then took my hand and bowed. His curly dark mop top was draped over my wrist, and he wouldn't rise. It was embarrassing. For almost a minute he stayed down there. It was incredibly flattering, and reflective of the range of the young man's musical taste. (Later I read yet another article on the L.A. Phil's new 28-year-old conductor in which he said he was well aware of Led Zeppelin, salsa and jazz.)

After he rose, I proceeded with the script I'd rehearsed in my head. "Gustavo, I didn't come here because of your long hair!" The entire room roared. Way before rock 'n' rollers let their locks drape over their ears, classical music was "tagged" with the moniker: "music for longhairs." Possibly some rock musicians of the British Invasion during the '60s were inspired by the classical lads. The Kinks, the Stones and the Zombies certainly looked like Beethoven with their locks dangling over sport jackets and ruffled shirts.

Our two genres, classical and rock, are connected. Some stuffed shirts might think connected by the hair only, but I was out to prove otherwise. "I played timpani on the Berlioz piece in high school, so I know your world." The Venezuelan wunderkind smiled broadly. He graciously, even enthusiastically, posed for photos with everyone, Eloísa Maturén, Gustavo's strikingly tall and beautiful wife, being the volunteer shutterbug.

Joyous sounds

This was months ago when he guest conducted, and I'm not sure he had yet been secured as the next podium meister. I'd caught his interview on "60 Minutes" and was impressed by his humility. The interviewer tried to get him to acknowledge his stature as the world's most sought-after conductor, but he just kept saying, "I have much to learn . . . I have much to learn." I checked out his YouTube video with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and was enthralled. He had the young musicians standing up and dancing while playing! So I knew before most that someone special was on his way from Caracas to "Disneyland."

A year later was Dudamel's gala inaugural concert, which I had decided to skip because of the flood of celebrities looking for PR (although writing this puts me in the same camp!).

Then an old film school friend of Jim Morrison's, Alain Ronay, sent me an e-mail. He relayed the message that the L.A. Phil was going to perform Berio's "Rendering" and "Folk Songs." I e-mailed my dear friend Cristina Berio,the daughter of Italian composer Luciano Berio and mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. Cristina said the orchestra's longtime general manager, Ernest Fleischmann, had introduced her to Dudamel, and Gustavo showed much respect for her dad's music, so getting tickets and going backstage shouldn't be too hard. The anticipated night came, and we met downtown at Frank Gehry's steel rosebud. Accompanying Cristina was Susan Oyama, Berio's second wife. She had flown in from New York. (The composer had passed in 2003.)

Woven tapestry

We entered the glorious wooden enclave, an auditorium so inviting that it almost didn't matter what you heard. Inside was warm and womblike. The maestro came out to huge applause, and he hadn't conducted a note yet. You could feel the orchestra's admiration for him already. He had cropped his wild hair somewhat and put on a few pounds since my girlfriend and I saw him a year before. Even with its shorter length, the hair seemed uncontainable. Maybe corralled, the hair wouldn't compete as much with the arms for control of the orchestra. Still, the hair sort of underscored everything his arms were saying.

Dudamel's rendering of the Berio / Schubert piece was like a woven tapestry of the traditional and the marginal. Berio's courage to tackle completing Schubert's 10th with eerie glue was transcendental.

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