Thursday, April 5, 2012


What makes a kid want to be a conductor? Music? Sure, the power of music to transport you anywhere, wherever you want to go.

I think it's a Be-a-King passion, and it's not the same as wanting to be a rock star, or a performer. I suspect the big dream, the passion for music. is similar to what drew me to dance. I wanted to ride the wave.

Gustavo Dudamel, 31, has been firing up music ever since he was a wee little kid. Today he's the conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

"Dudamel explodes out of his seat, stands on the tips of his toes, jabs the air violently with his conductor’s baton," says Chris Lee, music editor for Newsweek, describing a rehearsal of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. (I've got to confess, I'm a Mahler nut! --one of my biggest triumphs was dancing Mahler's Fifth at Lincoln Center.)

The Eighth Symphony is a huge undertaking, one of the largest-scale works in the classical concert repertoire. Dudamel refers to his Mahler Project as "my crazy dream." He scolded the choir of 800 singers, “We have a phrase in Venezuela: ‘You killed the tiger and now you’re afraid to take the skin. This is happening here. You have to take the skin! Be more in the moment!”

Conductors are special men. I met Leonard Bernstein -- he was accessible, friendly and fatherly about my using his "Trouble in Tahiti" opera for a ballet, though he said, "I don't think it'll work, but give it a try."

When I was dancing as a soloist with symphony orchestras, I met many conductors -- none were average/ ordinary -- all were tough, straight-forward, sharp-minded. I think it takes a powerful sense of "I know better than anybody else" to be a conductor.

Gustavo Dudamel, in Caracas now, is conducting the Eighth and other massive works. His fans calls call him “The Dude.” Though he's small in stature, he's becoming a towering figure in symphonic music. Corkscrew curls, an intensely ecstatic podium presence, conducting his own interpretations of beloved orchestral works, this guy is bridging the generation gap between older music lovers and young new listeners.

“Fame has two sides for me,” Gustavo Dudamel says. “One is when fame is an inspiration for other people. The other is when fame is an inspiration for you. What that means? In the second case, it becomes an ego thing. ‘I’m the best and everybody knows me.’ In the first, you see the children calling you, and your image is an inspiration for them to accomplish things. For me, that’s amazing. You feel like things are going the right way. ”

Asked about being "The Dude," he said, “I’m coming from a Latin culture where everything is so energetic,” he says. “I cannot avoid that. It’s in my blood.”

Yes, Gustavo Dudamel is a name to know. His recordings are something to listen to. Why? Because music -- classical music, all music -- is the top of the mountain, the zenith, the most astounding gift that we've been given.
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