LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Watch out for the lightning conductor

By Norman Lebrecht / April 19, 2006

The world's hottest young baton has landed his first proper job. Well done, I hear musicians cry, come back in two years' time when he's got something to show. That is the normal response to any young man taking his first steps on the podium.

But there are signs and omens to this Easter appointment that suggest something more auspicious than the landing of just another comet on the bleak, pitted surface of concert stardom. There are also fluttering seeds of musical suspicion at the suddenness of his ascent.

Gustavo Dudamel, a 25 year-old Venezuelan with a film-star look in his eyes and the physical stature of Paul Newman without heels, has been storming concert halls on scant rehearsal this past year as a last-minute substitute. He helped the Philharmonia out of a hole at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, deputised for Esa-Pekka Salonen and Zubin Mehta in Switzerland and Israel and went on air worldwide by stepping in for Neeme Järvi at the BBC Proms in a programme that included the Sibelius Fifth with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. He has a record deal with Deutsche Grammophon and two Beethoven symphonies in the can. He's smart, he's cute and, in case you're getting interested, he has just married a ballet dancer, Eloisa Maturen. All the right moves, in just the right order, and backstory to break hardened hearts.

Dudamel came up through a national training system for slum and street kids which Simon Rattle proclaims to be Îthe most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world'. He has been conducting the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela since he was 16 and gives a Beethoven Fifth that can blow the socks off corporate sponsors at fifty paces.

His is one of 125 youth orchestras in a country of 22 million people, three quarters of whom live in poverty. In Barquisimeto, where he grew up, few men of his age have work and most have guns. Dudamel rode to fame on the back of deprived origins. He is the first product of the Venezuelan sistema to catch the world's eye, spotted by Claudio Abbado and championed by Rattle and Daniel Barenboim.

Since last year's flush of stand-ins he has been swamped with guest dates, but though many orchestras that booked him for one-night stands are in the market for a longterm relationship, only one manager seized the moment and signed him.

Ed Smith is a Liverpudlian who runs the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Back in 1979 he was the youngest orchestral manager in Britain when he took on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and proposed his mate Simon as its next conductor. The rest is legend. Smith and Rattle - the names are not usually listed in that order though they ought to be ö rocketed Birmingham to international fame with a combination of high-calibre playing, unusual programmes, youth appeal, a dazzling new hall and a social conscience that reached out to every needy sector of a post-industrial city.

When Rattle departed Birmingham after 18 years with no other job in mind, so did Smith, having responsibly arranged a smooth baton transfer to Sakari Oramo. But where Rattle received the call to Berlin, city of conductors' dreams, Smith hung around waiting for London to spot his availability and, when that call failed to come through, he took on the Toronto Symphony Orchestra against the advice of friends. Toronto, a band with a history of union trouble and a concrete hall that sounds quite dead, had sixty members on its board and was practically ungovernable. After a couple of years in harness with the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who drew the same glum conclusion, Smith came home defeated, his Birmingham triumphs forgotten.

In his early 50s he was struggling to get onto shortlists when the new music director in Sweden's second city, the amiable Mario Venzago, beckoned him to what looked like a safe option. Gothenburg is a place where subsidy is taken for granted and concerts attract young and old alike to its well-kept art deco hall. Unknown to Smith, Venzago was in trouble. After 25 years with the formidably equipped if somewhat chaotic Neeme Järvi, the orchestra could not warm to his Swiss successor, who ran his career like clockwork. Maestro and band agreed to part just before Christmas and Smith, without hesitation, swooped for Dudamel, who had entranced the players at his Proms stand-in. ÎI've just seen him at rehearsal spend 45 minutes dissecting the Adagietto of Mahler Fifth,' Smith told me after signing the deal, Îand everything he had to say meant something ö and made a difference.' The musicians acclaimed Dudamel as Îknowledgeable, inspiring and spontaneous' ö an extraordinary accolade for one so young.

Dudamel is the exactly the age that Rattle was when Smith took him to Birmingham. With shrewd guidance, he will be destined for great things and the man who hooked him for Gothenburg will go down as one of the great spotters and nurturers of the most nebulous of musical skills, the art of conducting. It's good to see Ed back in business and there must be a good few orchestras that are kicking themselves for not hiring the lovely fellow in his fallow years.

They will also be kicking chips out of the wall at not punching Dudamel's card ahead of clever Ed. Birmingham which is losing Oramo, the Philharmonia which needs to replace Christoph von Dohnanyi, not to mention Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington D. C. and La Scala are all searching for a new music director and none of them got a sniff at the eye-catching Dudamel whose looks alone will put a surge on web bookings.

And that's where the suspicion kicks in. Dudamel is managed by the London agency Askonas Holt, whose director is Rattle's veteran representative, Martin Campbell-White. The same agency also looks after Abbado and Barenboim, the lad's other cheerleaders, along with a host of top conductors. It was therefore best placed to slot him in for cancellations on the strength of encomia from its celebrity clients.

Most independent assessments confirm Dudamel's exceptional talent and I share Campbell-White's confidence that he will flourish in Gothenburg in the care of Rattle's old pal. But the young man would do well not to dwell on his deprived background, for his musical ascent has been privileged all the way and he must now prepare to deliver performances of a calibre that justify his vertical promotion.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006