Gustavo Dudamel: The boy from Barquisimeto whose dream to direct the New York Philharmonic came true

‘It is an honor to be the first Latino to lead this orchestra,’ says the Venezuelan musician during his presentation as musical and artistic director of the orchestra

Gustavo Dudamel at the headquarters of the New York Philharmonic on Monday.
Gustavo Dudamel at the headquarters of the New York Philharmonic on Monday.SARAH YENESEL (EFE)

Gustavo Dudamel’s dream came true on Monday. At the age of eight or nine, in his home in Barquisimeto (Venezuela), Dudamel used to conduct an imaginary symphony orchestra for his family and puppets. Back then, he dreamed of playing in a salsa orchestra like his father. Today, at the age of 42, he has been named the musical and artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, a position that has been held by Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Lorin Maazel and other greats in the history of music.

“It is a dream to be at such an emblematic place. Its past is impressive, but I also see all the possibilities that the future offers, not only as an institution, as an orchestra, but as an identity for the community and as a tool for social transformation”, the conductor said Monday. Dudamel’s pedagogical work, as promoter of El Sistema de Abreu or creator of the YOLA, the Los Angeles youth orchestra modeled after the Venezuelan youth orchestra, has always run parallel to the interpretative one. After a successful period at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which he joined in 2009, Dudamel will join the New York orchestra as music director designate in the 2025-2026 season, and from the following season he will be its 27th conductor for five years. He will succeed Jaap van 0zweden in the post.

“When I came to the Philharmonic in 2007 I had black hair and was 25 or 26 years old,” he joked about his first concert in New York. “Lorin Maazel was the artistic director, and the fact that he welcomed me was very special. I immediately felt a connection with the orchestra, it was a turning point in my career.” Since then, he has conducted 26 repertory concerts, but a conductor, he pointed out, “is nothing without an orchestra.” “When you have an incredible group of musicians like these it’s not difficult to make exceptional music,” he added.

As a kid, Dudamel was a good baseball player, who “played everything, in all positions”. When faced with the dilemma of having to choose between the two great teams of what will be his home starting in 2025 on, he chose “the Cardinals of Barquisimeto... and also the Dogers [of Los Angeles], and well, okay, a little bit the Yankees,” he said in between laughs. Smiling, approachable, charismatic, Dudamel held the attention of those attending his formal debut as music director of the Philharmonic, which included a good part of the board of trustees, some musicians and many cameras.

“Life has been very generous to me,” the musician said, in conversation with Deborah Borda, the ensemble’s outgoing executive director and his enthusiastic mentor. “Being the first Latino, the first Hispanic [at the helm of the Philharmonic] is something that makes me proud, but this is not an individual achievement, but a reflection of the work and effort of many, many children and young people who are making their way in life through music. This child from Barquisimeto arrives in New York, and that makes me happy because it means that dreams can be achieved with discipline and hard work,” said the musician. Nevertheless, he stressed that his progression was a natural process, nothing forced, the result of “making music with others who end up being friends, family.” Like conductor Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and so many others, whom he cited with veneration.

Tribute to Abreu

Dudamel has also remembered his teacher José Antonio Abreu, with whom he began at the age of nine. “He was a father to me. I remember our conversations, not only about music, but also about philosophy or poetry. They are the basis of my career.” Dudamel vindicates his formative years in Venezuela and celebrates Abreu, El Sistema - Venezuela’s public music education program - and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, which he directed since 1999. “Although I do not travel regularly to my country since 2017, I am in continuous contact. The Simón Bolívar Orchestra is in good shape and some of its musicians have participated in my and my wife’s foundation’s Encuentros [Los Angeles] program.” Quoting the writer Miguel de Unamuno in Spanish, Dudamel recalled: “Freedom is in culture.”

The musician repeated that, although he is still young, he is no longer a young promise, and assured that he has taken risks in his career since he began. “Every step we take is a risk, but yes, I like to take risks. At 22 or 23 I was a wild animal, not just because of my hair, which was wild. At that age it was time to exaggerate, and I exaggerated, it was the way to learn. Now I am no longer a young promise, with experience you change,” he said about his approach to the Philharmonic and, in general, the rest of his work.“It’s hard to get to a place and say ‘I’m going to do this and the other.’ Things don’t work that way. First you have to learn.”

As the head of the Philharmonic’s selection committee recalled at the presentation on Monday, “nothing is more difficult to find within a great orchestra than unanimity. But Gustavo was the exception: he was the only candidate, and the unanimity [among the musicians] on his candidacy was complete.” New York is surrendering at Dudamel’s feet and counting the days before they can have him exclusively, without sharing him with Los Angeles or Paris. To the musician, New York is a city with many Latino immigrants and “with a very special vibe, all its energy and the culture it embraces. I can’t wait to be here.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS