Who's the world's greatest conductor? You could debate that question for days. Who's the world's most precocious conductor? Hands down it's Gustavo Dudamel, a shaggy haired prodigy from Venezuela, who has become classical music's newest rock star.
Gustavo started taking music lessons when he was four. When he was 15, he was named conductor of Venezuela's national youth orchestra. Ten months ago, at the ripe old age of 26, the Los Angeles Philharmonic hired him as its next music director.
Gustavo Dudamel is simply the hottest thing to hit classical music since Leonard Bernstein. But in the world of music, why talk? Better to look, and listen.
Aside from the hair, the first thing you might notice about Gustavo Dudamel is the joy, the exuberance, the passion, the energy, with which he conducts. The hair bounces, the arms fly. He is a man possessed, conducting Beethoven, but doing a ballet. Watching Dudamel conduct is mesmerizing, and audiences around the world can't get enough of him. But don't think of him as a talented newcomer. Despite his youth, Gustavo sees himself as a weathered veteran.
"I'm not too young," he tells Simon. "I'm 26."
"You're an old man," Simon remarks.
"I'm a very old man, Dudamel says, laughing. "No, you know. I feel you know, I start to conduct orchestras when I was 12 years old."
But Dudamel says it's not true when he sees himself described as a genius, prodigy, or wunderkind. "I think that I need to learn a lot, a lot. I think that this is my beginning," he says.
Gustavo exploded onto the international stage in 2004, with a lot less hair but just as much energy. He was one of 16 people invited to compete for the Mahler Prize, the world's most prestigious competition for young conductors. And he won. One of the judges was the L.A. Philharmonic's conductor, who after seeing Gustavo, called Los Angeles to talk to his boss, Deborah Borda.
"And he said, 'Well, actually, I just saw the most amazing young conductor. He's a 24-year-old Venezuelan kid. He barely speaks English. And Deborah, he's a real conducting animal,'" Borda recalls, laughing.
It was the beginning of a global phenomenon known as "Dudamel-mania." Newspapers and magazines started covering his every move. A German company signed a recording contract with him. He was sought after to conduct orchestras around the world. Even the pope commanded a performance. But the music world was stunned when the Los Angeles Philharmonic hired him to be its next music director.
"I think that the atmosphere exists here for him to really change musical history," Borda says. "Gustavo has an ability to communicate what is passionate and vital about music in a very 21st century way."