You’d have to scroll back nearly a century, to Toscanini, before you’d find a conductor whose New York debut was heralded by the excitement that greeted Gustavo Dudamel. The 26-year-old Caracas Kid has been shepherding his symphony of lambs—the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela—around the Western Hemisphere, their advance on Carnegie Hall preceded by flights of ecstatic reviews and ritual retellings of the saga of El Sistema. Thanks to the visionary José Antonio Abreu, Venezuela’s youth orchestras rescue tens of thousands of street kids from truncated childhoods by substituting a fiddle or a clarinet for a handgun or a syringe. The country trains orchestral musicians as the Soviet Union did gymnasts: by guiding talented children into a strong farm system. At the top of the pyramid sit the Simón Bolívar all-stars, led by Dudamel, whose talent, athletic physicality, and charm have turned him into an unlikely symbol: maestro as national hero.
Dudamel, who will succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, has benefited hugely from both system and story, but he might have become a phenom even without them. In two Carnegie Hall concerts, he summoned such varied shadings of exhilaration, from the sober thrills of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra to the spangled delights of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, that the hype faded like starlight at dawn. The performance even justified the nervy gambit of making Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony his calling card, which is a little like a Broadway rookie’s doing Hamlet: What could he offer that we haven’t heard before? Not interpretive novelty but explosive urgency. Habit and veneration can muffle the piece’s shock, yet the Bolivarianos played as people to whom this performance truly mattered—as if the obsessive hammering of short-short-short-long contained a vital scrap of moral code.
With the Beethoven dispatched, it was time to party. Band and bandleader slipped into warm-up jackets in the colors of the Venezuelan flag and knocked out a raucously sensational “Mambo” from West Side Story. Violinists jumped up to dance, double basses twirled, horns were pointed toward the rafters, and cellists held up their instruments, bobbing and swaying them in the air. But the Venezuelans wanted to provide mellower pleasures, too, and show that they weren’t averse to a little existential grimness. They recruited that master of understatement, Emanuel Ax, to play Chopin’s lyrically plodding Second Piano Concerto, while the orchestra behind him showed off its self-effacing pianissimi. The next evening was devoted to the Concerto for Orchestra and Shostakovich’s alternately gloomy and ecstatically loud Symphony No. 10, led not by Dudamel but by his mentor, Simon Rattle. The orchestra need make no excuses for its amateur status: The brass did honor to Shostakovich’s anguished blasts, the soloists sounded seasoned. And in the Bartók, Dudamel coaxed a chef’s-knife sound out of the strings: well balanced, heavy, beautiful, and acute.
Dudamel is young, but El Sistema has provided him with a depth of experience that apprentice conductors in other countries almost never get: nearly nine years as music director. Symphonic music depends on the currents of feeling that course between the podium and the ranks. The first time a guest conductor steps in front of an orchestra, intertwined strands of trust, suspicion, respect, defiance, flirtation, and congeniality can spring up within seconds. The relationship between an orchestra and its music director is deeper, even more complex and potentially more fruitful. In Venezuela, Dudamel has been leading his peers—his muchachos, he calls them—and together they have nurtured the insane rush that comes from making music en masse, plus the discipline of doing so correctly. It will be interesting to see whether he can adrenalize the New York Philharmonic when he makes his debut with that ensemble on November 29. In music, as in love, chemical reactions can’t always be predicted, controlled, or even understood.