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Gustavo Dudamel to Succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen at LA Philharmonic in 2009

By Matthew Westphal
08 Apr 2007

Esa-Pekka Salonen will step down as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the end of the 2008-09 season. Replacing him on the podium at Walt Disney Concert Hall will be Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who will be 28 at the time.

The orchestra revealed the news in a statement issued to the press today; a formal announcement will be made tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Gustavo Dudamel
photo by Mathias Bothor/DGG
Born in 1981 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela to music teacher parents, Gustavo Dudamel Ramírez is a product of the sistema, the widely studied and praised network of music schools and youth orchestras that extends throughout the country. He began playing violin at age 4 and studying seriously at 10; at 15 he took up conducting, and the following year landed his first professional position, as associate (and later assistant) conductor of the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. In 1999 he was named music director of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the sistema's flagship ensemble, and began studying with José Antonio Abreu, the SBYO's founder and the sistema's national father figure.

Dudamel came to international attention in 2004 when he handily won the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. (Salonen was on the jury.) Within little more than a year, he acquired high-powered management (from Askonas Holt), debut engagements with nearly a dozen high-profile orchestras (including the Los Angeles Philharmonic), and an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon; such éminences grises as Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim took serious interest in his career. In 2006 he was appointed the next principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden's national orchestra (he begins his term this fall), and won the Pegasus Prize at Italy's Spoleto Festival.

So far Dudamel has only had two engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: his 2005 debut at the Hollywood Bowl and subscription concerts at Disney Hall this past January. Both appearances were very well received by audiences, critics, and the orchestra's players and management. In today's statement, Philharmonic president Deborah Borda said, "From the moment Gustavo Dudamel stepped on our podium there was an immediate and palpable connection and chemistry with the LA Phil musicians." Board chairman Jerrold Eberhardt added, "Our board and musicians immediately sensed that something very special was happening when Gustavo Dudamel conducted in Los Angeles. This was echoed by the audience's overwhelming reaction at every concert." Principal bassist Christopher Hanulik, chairman of the musicians' Artistic Liaison Committee, observed, "In working with him, two things struck the orchestra right away. First, he is obviously a very dynamic musical personality. The second thing is the depth of knowledge he conveyed, even at his relatively young age. When a conductor can stand up in front of this orchestra without having to articulate verbally, that's so exciting from our standpoint."

Next season Dudamel is scheduled to conduct the Philharmonic in a two-week residency from March 28 through April 6, 2008; in 2008-09, he will have the title of Music Director Designate. (The number of his appearances with the orchestra that season was not revealed.) For his inaugural season as music director in 2009-10, he will lead 10 weeks of subscription concerts as well as summer performances at the Hollywood Bowl; in each remaining year of his five-year contract, he will conduct 14 weeks of subscription programs, plus summer and tour concerts.

Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have become thoroughly identified with each other since he became the orchestra's music director at age 34 in 1992. Over the ensuing 15 years each has brought the other to major international prominence: Salonen is now in extensive demand as both conductor and composer, while the Philharmonic under his leadership has won worldwide admiration and is even, as symphony orchestras go, considered hip. Perhaps most notable is that Salonen and the Philharmonic have developed an enthusiastic audience for contemporary music in Los Angeles, a city widely thought until recently (especially on the U.S. East Coast) to be uninterested in high culture.

Around the turn of this century, when the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra were all looking for new music directors, Salonen pointedly took himself out of the running, declaring his intention to remain in Los Angeles and making a very public six-figure donation to what he called "my orchestra." Yet he has always said that his first love is composing and has stated numerous times in recent years that at some point he would stop conducting music full-time in order to write more of it. (While he begins a job as principal conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra this fall, that position involves no administrative duties and is much less demanding than a U.S. music directorship; according to The Los Angeles Times, Salonen and his family will continue to live in Southern California.)

"It will come as no surprise to anyone that I wish to dedicate myself more fully to composing," said Salonen in today's statement. "I could not, indeed would not have made this decision unless I was confident that everything was in just the right place and balance. [...] Gustavo Dudamel's remarkable talent, intelligence and energy are the absolute right match for the orchestra and Los Angeles. While I intend to continue my relationship with the LA PHIL, I am peaceful and joyous about the artist to whom we will pass the baton."




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