LOS ANGELES — They drew the line at the bobble-head doll.
But the Los Angeles Philharmonic shop offers plenty of mugs and T-shirts splashed with the arms-outstretched image of its new maestro, Gustavo Dudamel. In fact, his face has been plastered across town on buses, billboards and banners marching down Sunset Strip. Children mob him for autographs. (He signs them all.) Fireworks spelled out his name at a mega-concert to introduce him to the city.
In a case of Hollywood-meets-Haydn, the star factory is busy at work on a rare subject: a 28-year-old Venezuelan conductor whose life revolves around scores, not scripts. With only a handful of concerts here behind him, Dudamel is more or less making this town swoon.
“He’s a genuine star,” said Martin Kaplan, a former movie executive and a professor at the University of Southern California. “He’s young. He has amazing hair. He has a great back story. He has a fantastic name. He’s the dude!”
Dudamel has just finished his first month as the orchestra’s music director after a five-year rise that brought him unusual attention in the classical music world. As his Hollywood introduction made clear, he has penetrated the consciousness of popular culture in the way of Leonard Bernstein.
That introduction resulted partly from a carefully planned campaign, led by the orchestra’s president and chief executive officer, Deborah Borda, but just as much from the media and a public fascinated with the man himself.
What’s most striking about this Hollywood tale is the contrast between the hype and Dudamel’s unmistakable gifts, those who know him say: his conducting talent and near-innocent but deeply compelling enthusiasm for making music.
“Deborah Borda’s rollout of Dudamel was as savvy as any studio mogul marketing a tent-pole movie,” said Kaplan, the director of the university’s Norman Lear Center, which looks at the impact of media and entertainment on society. “Plus, she had the advantage of what they call in Hollywood a good product. She didn’t have to put perfume on a stink bomb.”
Borda had been tracking Dudamel since he won a conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004. Then he was a little-known product of El Sistema in Venezuela, a network of youth orchestras created in poor neighborhoods. Dudamel had risen to lead the system’s crown jewel, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, in Caracas.
As he took on more and more important guest-conducting jobs around the world, the Los Angeles Philharmonic decided in mid-2006 that he could be Esa-Pekka Salonen’s natural successor. The transition was announced all at once, in April 2007, eliminating the usual drawn-out music-director search and giving management plenty of time to plan his arrival.
And it laid out the red carpet in a big way with a free concert called “¡Bienvenido Gustavo!” on October 3 at the Hollywood Bowl for 18,000 people. The festivities included gospel, jazz, pop and blues, movie-star introducers (Jack Black: “This dude’s on fire!”) and the fireworks. Dudamel’s first conducting that day took place with a youth orchestra that the Philharmonic had established on the Sistema model before his arrival. Then he led the Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In a savvy appeal to the Latino population, the “Ode to Joy” text was projected in Spanish, prompting applause and a few tears.
Five days later the orchestra laid out a literal red carpet for Dudamel’s gala opening concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where Mylar confetti rained down on the audience.
Along the way the orchestra established a breathless minisite devoted to Dudamel on its Web site, laphil.com. It features a “Bravo Gustavo” computer game akin to “Guitar Hero” and an application that allows the movement of an iPhone to shape music coming out of it. A famous hot-dog stand, Pink’s, put up a banner welcoming him and created a Dudamel Dog (guacamole, cheese, fajita mix, jalapeno peppers, tortilla chips). “60 Minutes” is working on its third segment featuring him.
Philharmonic officials said they spent $750,000 beyond their usual marketing budget but played down their efforts to promote Dudamel. They said Salonen had also received the banner treatment and that they strictly limit Dudamel’s interviews.
Amid the overwhelmingly positive press and reviews were a few negative flecks, including one from a Philadelphia Inquirer critic who compared part of a Mahler First Symphony performance by Dudamel with “drunken clog dancing” and another from a columnist for The Los Angeles Times who cautioned against exaggerating Dudamel’s importance to the Latino population.
Philharmonic officials say they worry about a reaction in the media against all the positive attention. “You have this kind of success, and there’s a certain amount of backlash you have to sustain,” Borda said.
Others, including some orchestra members who have embraced the attention brought to their ensemble, wonder if the hoopla will go to Dudamel’s head. He has yet to become a fixture at Los Angeles Lakers baskeball games, although he has attended at least one, or the Oscars. The Disney Hall architect, Frank Gehry, seems to be his best celebrity friend.
In an interview in his dressing room recently, Dudamel called the attention amazing and wonderful but important mostly because of the recognition it brings the orchestra and classical music. He acknowledged that it had raised expectations. But he laughed off the risk of a runaway ego.
“This is about values, and I think my values are really, really on earth,” he said. “My family was giving me values, and the system of Venezuela was giving me values, to know what I am.”
Yes, he said, life has been “crazy” the last five years. But “the main thing is, for me, music education, my family and, I think, I don’t know how is in English — humility? Humility is nothing you can learn. You are born with humility or no.” And the mugs and T-shirts? He found them amusing. “It’s funny to see my hair there,” he said.
His natural bonhomie was evident at rehearsals recently for performances of the Verdi Requiem. The atmosphere was almost giddy. Laughter often rippled through the orchestra. He introduced the soloists by first name. After a bone-rattling bass-drum whack, he stopped the orchestra and said in a mischievous tone, “I like.”
At the first performance, Dudamel scrapped the opening when a cell phone rang during the hushed first measures and started again. Afterward, in his dressing room, he bustled around a few visitors, including Gehry, with a bottle of iced vodka and a box of Venezuelan chocolates, full of energy and amused concern for the tenor, whose pants had come apart during the performance and had to be held up by hand.
The scene seemed to support the theory that Dudamel can resist Important Maestro Syndrome. “He’s bigger than the Hollywood scene,” Christopher Still, the second trumpet, said a few days earlier. “I don’t sense he’ll fall for the glitz. He’ll wield the glitz.”