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N.Y. Philharmonic chief looks to Gustavo 'Dudamel era' after historic appointment

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the New York Philharmonic, March 9, 2022.
Chris Lee
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New York Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the New York Philharmonic, March 9, 2022.

When the New York Philharmonic's current music director, Jaap van Zweden, announced he would be leaving his post next year, president and CEO Deborah Borda had only one new maestro in mind: Gustavo Dudamel.

"There are so many things that are remarkable about Gustavo Dudamel," Borda tells NPR's Leila Fadel. "But I think number one is his ability to communicate with both musicians and audiences and to express pure joy in music. And this is something that we simply can't quite put into words. It's spontaneous combustion."

The 42-year-old Venezuelan's charismatic approach has made him one of the world's most sought-after conductors. He will officially lead the oldest symphony orchestra in the U.S. starting with the 2026-27 season, for an initial five-year term, beginning as music director designate in the 2025-26 season. Dudamel follows in the footsteps of giants such as Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein, all former New York Philharmonic music directors.

"He was the only one on our list ... This will be the Dudamel era," says Borda, who in 2009 ushered Dudamel into his current job as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director when she led that organization. That earlier nod — when he was just 28 — helped Dudamel hone his craft, both on and off the podium.

He's a rarity among classical music personalities who doubles as a pop culture celebrity. "He's a person who crosses all lines," Borda notes. "This is one of the things we saw out in Los Angeles from the moment he came — his ability to adapt within popular culture." The conductor has appeared in a Super Bowl halftime show and made cameo appearances on Sesame Street and on the Amazon classical music dramedy Mozart in the Jungle.

New York Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda, who hired Gustavo Dudamel to lead the orchestra, also appointed him to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 when she headed that organization.
Dario Acosta / New York Philharmonic
/
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda, who hired Gustavo Dudamel to lead the orchestra, also appointed him to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 when she headed that organization.

Part of the gamble is whether Dudamel will help attract new, younger and more diverse audiences to the orchestra's home, David Geffen Hall, which reopened last year after a $550 million overhaul. He will be the first Hispanic leader of the Philharmonic in a city where Latinos count for more than a quarter of the population.

"We know he will think about how to integrate a symphony orchestra into the fabric of a city. How do we discover the intersection between the artistic imperative and the social imperative?" Borda says. "But more importantly, he is a profound musician. And in the end, that's what we look for and that's what audiences look for."

Borda recalled first meeting Dudamel in 2004, when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, leading the namesake composer's Fifth Symphony. He was just 23 years old. "It was the greatest single Mahler Five I had ever heard," she says. "When I first saw him conduct, it was simply the greatest talent I'd ever seen. It's a 100-year talent. At age 14, he could conduct all the Beethoven and Mahler symphonies from memory because he was music director of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra at age 12."

Dudamel will get to put his Mahler credentials on display in New York soon, as he guest conducts the composer's Ninth Symphony with the Philharmonic in May.

Leila Fadel conducted the interview for the audio version of this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.