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Gustavo Dudamel is maestro of all he surveys

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel (standing) and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra are the most exciting thing in classical music. Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel (standing) and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra are the most exciting thing in classical music.
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2007

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If you want to know why there's been so much buzz about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and its 20-something conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, you can find the answer on YouTube. The site has a thoroughly intoxicating clip of the young musicians playing the "Mambo" in Bernstein's "Symphonic Dances From 'West Side Story' " at last summer's BBC Proms in London. Actually, they don't play it so much as they use it to tear up the Royal Albert Hall stage, summoning an energy and bravado alien to most orchestras. They dance, they grin from ear to ear, and they play like champs. It touches off a near-riot in the audience.

Dudamel and the orchestra are now officially the most exciting thing in classical music. They are a testament to "El Sistema," the amazing network of musical ensembles and education programs that target Venezuela's poor children. The Bolívar orchestra is its crown jewel and Dudamel its most famous alumnus, and they are in the midst of their first major American tour. It brings them to Symphony Hall on Wednesday, in a concert presented by New England Conservatory in association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Celebrity Series of Boston.

Over the last year or so, the excitement surrounding the frizzy-haired Dudamel has blossomed into all-out frenzy. Following a string of highly acclaimed guest appearances, he was the surprise choice to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a post he takes up in 2009. He'll still be at the helm of the Bolívar orchestra, as well as Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony. Incredibly, he will be only 28 years old. Rarely has one musician's potential seemed so limitless.

I first spoke to Dudamel last year, before his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut at Tanglewood. At the time his wife translated his answers from Spanish because he wasn't comfortable with English. A few days ago I caught up with him again by phone from Los Angeles, the tour's first stop. He needed no translator this time. A tumult of activity surrounded him as he rushed from one commitment to the next - a "60 Minutes" crew had caught up with him there - but he sounded confident and improbably relaxed as he discussed the tour, his future, and the orchestra he calls his family.

Q. Your career has really exploded over the past year . . .

A. [sound of Dudamel laughing]

Q. Why are you laughing?

A. Oh, it is funny! Because I feel the same, you know? I'm the same guy.

Q. Are you?

A. Absolutely. With more responsibilities, with the opportunity to work with the best orchestras, the best artists. But I feel [like] the same guy from Barquisimeto, you know?

Q. Talk about how the last year has been for you.

A. Very exciting. To work here in LA as music director - this is a big step and a wonderful opportunity. I debuted with the Vienna Philharmonic, also [the] Chicago [Symphony Orchestra]. I'm learning a lot - a learning year.

Q. Have you felt overwhelmed by the attention you've gotten since you accepted the job in Los Angeles?

A. You know, I don't feel any pressure.

Q. Really?

A. No. They are a wonderful orchestra, and here is a wonderful organization. It's not only Gustavo Dudamel, it's all the musicians of the orchestra, the committee of the LA Philharmonic, we have a wonderful staff. I think we'll be a wonderful team . . . We need to work with young people, we need to go to the poor communities to give music to these people. This is one of my goals in LA, and they are open to doing these things. You know, the rest is history.

Q. Can you describe the musical relationship between you and the Bolívar orchestra?

A. We are a family. I played in the orchestra from 1994, and now I'm the conductor, from 1999. [There are] wonderful connections - magic, special. I feel really comfortable with the orchestra, like I'm in my house playing some music with my best friends and my family. This is my orchestra here.

Q. Do you communicate differently with them than with another orchestra?

A. I work on the same level, in the same way. But of course the communication is different. Sometimes I don't need to tell them some things, because they already know what I want. And I know what they want.

Q. What does it mean to be touring in the United States with this orchestra?

A. It's very special because this is our first time in the United States in a serious tour. We played at the UN but never in the biggest halls of the United States. . . . This is one of the best periods [for] the orchestra, because it is in wonderful shape. They have wonderful energy, and we want to bring this to the United States to show what we are.

Q. Do you feel as though you're representing El Sistema?

A. Absolutely! We are a product of the system and this is our goal, to represent what it can accomplish. A little part, because we are only 240, I think, and the system is thousands and thousands of people.

Q. How did you choose the music for the tour?

A. It's a difficult tour, because we play the Shostakovich Tenth, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, Mahler Fifth, Beethoven Fifth and Seventh, the "West Side Story" Symphonic Dances. . . . It is a big challenge for the orchestra, but it's the best, because you can improve a lot with this music.

Q. Do you think the players are nervous?

A. No! They are happy. [laughter]

Q. What do you think a young conductor can bring to an orchestra as the music director?

A. I love music. Music for me is my life, it's not my job. And I think this is something very important to bring - the love for the music. . . . And I'm a very open person, and a very happy man. This is very important for making good music - being open.

Q. Do you worry that having these three jobs will be too much?

A. Oh, no. For me it's better, because this makes my life more stable. I'm traveling a lot - almost every week a different place. And having these three wonderful orchestras, I will have three beautiful homes.

Q. So you'll guest conduct less?

A. Absolutely. I will conduct other orchestras, but [not as much as] I'm doing now.

Q. Do you ever feel as though this is all happening too fast?

A. No. I told you at the beginning, I feel the same. I don't feel any pressure. I love to conduct, you know. I love to be with musicians. I told you - the rest is history.