Conductor Gustavo Dudamel: A Phenomenon to Celebrate and Watch

I have now experienced the conducting of Gustavo Dudamel "live" on three occasions. On top of that I've watched two video recordings and listened to at least three or four CDs as well, in some cases multiple times. I have to say that he is a phenomenon quite unlike just about anything or anyone I have experienced in almost fifty years of concert going. If you want a definition of the phrase "podium presence," the best way I can define it is to suggest watching Dudamel conduct.
Why do I write about him? After all, I rarely use this blog to "promote" an artist. One reason is that I already see signs of the all-too-predictable critical backlash that always follows any big success. I'm old enough to remember when Britten's War Requiem was introduced to the world and the initial reviews labeled it as one of the greatest choral works since Verdi's Requiem. While that may have been an overstatement, certainly the Britten work is one of the sublime masterpieces of the twentieth century. But as rave after rave followed its premiere, I remember saying to my wife something like "You watch. Within a few months the backlash will come." And sure enough, it did. Suddenly the War Requiem couldn't buy a good review: It went from being a timeless masterpiece to being an overrated hodgepodge of styles, most of them stolen from other composers (Verdi included). Eventually history made its determination, and the War Requiem seems to have earned a permanent place in the canon.

But so it is, and will be, with Dudamel. Some critics, though by no means all, are using words and phrases like "overrated," "hype," "a product of PR," "all glitz."  Well, they are just wrong. At the age of 27, Gustavo Dudamel--who, one must remember, has been conducting at some level since he was 12!--has shown me a musical depth, and talent, quite beyond what I have ever seen from a 27-year-old. And I've been around for quite a while now. He conducts as if he was born on the podium, with a fluid style, an extraordinarily expressive left hand (and body), a precise right hand when needed, and a way of indicating exactly what kind of sound he wants that is completely natural to him. One very experienced professional musician who recently saw him came away calling him "a conducting animal."  Dudamel has one of the most natural and complete physical gifts for conducting that I have ever seen. Full stop.

I have also had the privilege of speaking with him on a few occasions--briefly, to be sure. What stands out about those encounters is that the talk was always about music, not about a conducting career. This young man is a deeply serious, deeply feeling musician who brings a natural infectious energy, passion, and commitment to every performance he gives. The New York Philharmonic doesn't give many guest conductors, certainly not many very young ones, solo bows where the musicians refuse to stand and remain seated tapping their bows in admiration. On the two occasions when I've seen him with that orchestra, I've seen that ultimate demonstration of musician respect.

So let us celebrate that Gustavo Dudamel is among us, and that we will all share the experience of hearing him make music for, I hope, another half century. Let us congratulate the Los Angeles Philharmonic on appointing him music director, and let us hope that he finds a way to remain fresh and unspoiled, as he is now. He is one of the best things to happen to symphonic music in some time, and we are very lucky to be a part of it.
March 6, 2009 3:38 PM | | Comments (10)



Yes, he is overrated. Still in his late twenties. Will see how people will judge his conducting music when he is past forty.

to Mr. James McBee, who wrote on March 9th regarding the CSO concert with the Barber Adagio, and Brahams Second Symphony. What was that music of the future which closed the program? YoYo Ma was the soloist. My God! I'm still out there and wonder if that concert was recorded! Thank you!

Dear Mr. Fogel

Thank You for this outstanding post. Just for the people that "overate" Dudamel, some of his greatest achievements: the winner of 2004 inaugural Bamberger Symphoniker Gustav-Mahler-Dirigentenwettbewerb at the age of 24. The second global contest, in 2007 no body earn the first place. The second place [the only achievement] was for a still young Korean DIrector [31 years old].

Kind of regards,

Jose A Vivas

Just last night (April 6) I happened to turn the radio on a few minutes into a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini." Neither I nor my wife had any idea whose recording it was - but it was riveting. We were both absolutely transfixed by both its energy and the wonderful shaping of the lyrical passages. When it ended, the announcer indicated that it was the new recording by Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. It was nice to know that without the prejudice of advance knowledge, his conducting made its full impact on me.

Nobel Prize for Jose Antonio Abreu!!
NO one deserves it more!!

I heard the CSO concert Mr. McGee described and agree with his observations. I have been attending CSO concerts since the Reiner era and Dudamel brought something very special to that performance. The hall was sold out that evening (Thursday) and the audience seemed to me to be a little younger, a lot more attentive, and much more appreciative than usual. With music making at such an outstanding level and the audience obviously appreciating it and being fully engaged, it was an especially memorable evening. I came very skeptical because of all the hype but I left with the strong feeling that he is a unique talent.

I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Dudamel and hear him conduct in Chicago recently, and I share Mr. Fogel's opinion. His very slow tempo in Barber's Adagio for Strings made the work really memorable, and he explained that it was a sound that floats constantly in space and comes to us when we need it, hence it has no tempo of urgency. The Fourth Movement of Brahms 2 moved with never before heard speed, yet nothing came apart. It was the most amazing performance of BrahmsI have ever heard. As Orchestra Hall staff noted, when not rehearsing, Dudamel was in his temporary office, deeply immersed in a score, no doubt breathing it in so he could do his best to honor the composer's work with the life he imparts to it through the orchestra.

Bravo for these comments! I have seen Dudamel conduct the Alpine Symphony of R. Strauss recently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His technique, musicianship, and overall talent come right from his "gut"- and its sincere in every respect. He is serving the music, not Dudamel. It was a lifechanging experience to watch (sitting behind the orchestra in the "orchestra view seats" in Disney Hall.
- Don Th. Jaeger, Conductor and Oboist

The writer sees well but is obviously hard of hearing.

Anyone who wants to catch the spirit of Dudamel and El Sistema and José Antonio Abreu who helped shape him, can enjoy a speech by Abreu and performance by the Youth Orchestra under Dudmel on Abreu was honored with one of the yearly Ted Prizes, and his prize wish was to create 50 young musicians who would create El Sistema in their own countries. So inspiring...I immediately ordered the documentary about El Sistema and have enjoyed watching it and the concert footage.

It's so refreshing to find "the real deal" out there. You'd trust these people with the music, but you also trust their intentions. I thought the future (well, the survival) of classical music would come from the multitudes of China, if not from the inspiration, then from the pure numbers of performers they are churning out. So how humbling to find the future of classical music to spring from the slums of South America. And we get to enjoy it! Not a bad deal at all.

well, these naysayers might make it easier for the rest of us to get tickets.

Seriously, I agree completely with your assessment; he's in a class by himself, & there's nothing like a live performance. Lots on YouTube also, including very illuminating interviews & some extensive concert excerpts, besides the 3 videos (if you count Tocar y Luchar; maybe a couple more in the works).

One of the delightful advantages of the YouTube clips & the videos is seeing Dudamel smile while he's conducting. Why don't other conductors do that? he is having such fun! for example:
; move the slider to minute 4:50.

I think his refusing to take solo bows and his wonderful rapport with orchestras stem from coming up in el sistema, where children are in orchestras from the beginning and learn that helping everyone makes the whole group sound good. A beautiful artist, we are so lucky.


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