Venezuela's ‘rock star' conductor brings China to its feet

When he was 6 or 7 years old, Gustavo Dudamel used to set up an imaginary symphony made up of toy figures, put Tchaikovsky on the family stereo, pump up the volume and swing an imaginary baton, conducting with childhood abandon.

"Those toy figures that I played with and dreamt about as a boy have now become flesh-and-blood musicians," recalled Dudamel, 27.

The frizzy-haired Dudamel has turned into one of the world's brightest up-and-coming symphony conductors, capturing the job of leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic (starting next year) and grabbing the attention of music critics far and wide who laud him as possibly a once-in-a-generation maestro.

It's been a dizzying ride for a modest Venezuelan who came out of nowhere. Jay Leno and David Letterman are calling, and everybody else wants a piece of him. His schedule is already booked well into the next decade. The press has dubbed the hoopla as "Duda-mania."

And here he is, traveling across Asia with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and he couldn't be more joyous. That's because the orchestra was his ladder to success. Dudamel spent 22 years with the "musical miracle" system supporting the orchestra. Without the system, Dudamel knows he might be another trombonist pumping out salsa riffs with a band in Barquisimeto, his Venezuelan hometown, just as his father did.

The visit of Dudamel and the youth symphony has special resonance in China, a nation that prides itself as a rising musical power, where some 38 million students are believed to be studying piano and tens of millions practicing other instruments. China and Venezuela are linked by a bond - and perhaps a bit of a rivalry - over their musical gift. While China's musicians are renowned for technical proficiency, the Venezuelans are all passion.

"Could a country best known for corn, petroleum and revolutionary rhetoric dethrone the Middle Kingdom as classical music's heir apparent?" asked the Time Out Beijing magazine.

So when Dudamel took the podium at the National Grand Theater, one of China's new architectural jewels, Chinese officials, diplomats and other music aficionados eagerly awaited a chance to witness a conductor wearing the mantle as the new Leonard Bernstein or Carlos Kleiber. Some had questions, wondering if Dudamel had been overhyped.

The performance was electric as Dudamel led his youth symphony through Ravel, Castellano and Tchaikovsky, ending with a trademark encore from "West Side Story" that had musicians leaping from their seats, twirling instruments in the air and shouting "Bravo!" (Check it out on YouTube.)

"He's everybody's hope for the next generation of conductors - blazing energy, connects with audiences, down to earth. He puts on a hell of a show, which classical music needs," said David Stabler, classical music critic for The Oregonian, a newspaper in Portland, Ore.

Many countries, including China, voice interest in Venezuela's "musical miracle," seeking to learn from it or even replicate it. Already, young Chinese musicians are winning acclaim, most notably pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li, and China wants to deepen its youth music system.

"We can learn much from our Venezuelan colleagues," said Chen Zuohuang, artistic director of the National Center for the Performing Arts.

Offstage, Dudamel still struggles a bit with English rather than his native Spanish. Nearly every professional musician he directs, however, enthuses over his ability to express himself from the podium, using hands, face and baton.

"It's very difficult to put into words. It's a confidence and a body language that very few conductors achieve," said Ernest Fleischman, retired manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who was on the jury that selected Dudamel and offered him the job to lead the symphony. "The musicians trust him from the first moment."

(McClatchy Newspapers)

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