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Gustavo Dudamel: Making Classical Cool In L.A.

Gustavo Dudamel rehearses with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Ben Bergman
Gustavo Dudamel rehearses with the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Meet a young man who's managed to make classical music cool in Los Angeles: Gustavo Dudamel. The 29-year-old maestro, also known as "the Dude" and "Gustavo the Great," even has his own iPhone app since taking over as music director at the L.A. Philharmonic.

Dudamel may be from Venezuela, but he fits right in to the Hollywood Hills where he now lives.

Last fall, Dudamel conducted City Noir for his inaugural concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a piece he had commissioned from the composer John Adams. It's one of the works he's taking on the Philharmonic's U.S. tour that kicks off Monday.

Morning Edition host Renee Montagne asked Dudamel about City Noir when they sat down recently at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

"You know, all the first movement is jazz combining with some crazy harmonies and melodies around the piece," Dudamel says. "There are a lot of notes and a lot of colors, especially the colors. For example, the beginning of 'Boulevard Night' -- the last movement, you can see the city from the hills and the lights moving."

A Magical Stage Presence

The thing about Dudamel is that -- in addition to his musical talent -- he's brought a stage presence that's magic.

"He's got a big mop of hair, which is his trademark," says Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times music critic. "He moves amazingly well, like a dancer. He's very physical and very expressive."

Mark Swed recently wrote that Dudamel is the "happiest conductor in America."

"I should have made that 'the happiest conductor in the world'," Swed says, laughing. "He's a very happy guy, who's also deeply serious. He can conduct some very moving and very dark music in very moving and very dark ways. There is this inner-upbeatness and optimism in him. It is all the more meaningful that he does understand the other side, too."

Discovering The Baton

The story about Dudamel is that he grew up in a rough neighborhood. His father played trombone and his grandfather drove a truck. He was able to study music thanks to El Sistema, Venezuela's legendary national network of youth orchestras. It's said that among the children of Venezuela there are more musicians than soccer players.

Dudamel was playing violin at four, but very soon he discovered the baton. He says that it was a "game at the beginning." He'd put a recording on a music player and set up his toys around him like an orchestra. But at age 12, he had the opportunity to conduct for the first time.

"For me it was like, 'Wow, wow,'" says Dudamel. "It was natural."

Convincing The Orchestra

The young conductor says he wasn't some "crazy boy" who only studied music. He played and fought with his friends like everyone else. And he's never really lost that sense of fun.

"With time you have more knowledge of what you are doing," says Dudamel. "When you are a leader, you have to learn how to work because you have to convince the people in front of you of your ideas. When I started to conduct in professional orchestras when I was 22 or 23, [I had to] convince people with a lot of experience, with the tradition of sound or the idea of specific piece. What I want from the musicians is to enjoy what they are doing."

Leading a rehearsal at Disney Hall, Dudamel wears faded jeans and a striped polo shirt. He spends much of the time perched on a stool in front of the piano, alternately urging, coaxing and making his musicians laugh. One moment he throws back his black curls. Another moment, he puts his fingers to his lips as if to say, "shush."

On Monday, the orchestra begins its first national tour under its new maestro.

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