BEIJING — When he was six or seven years old, Gustavo Dudamel used to set up an imaginary symphony made up of toy figures, put Tchaikovsky on the family stereo, pump up the volume and swing an imaginary baton, conducting with childhood abandon.
"Those toy figures that I played with and dreamt about as a boy have now become flesh-and-blood musicians," the 27-year-old Dudamel recalled.
Through further alchemy, the frizzy-haired Dudamel has turned into one of the world's brightest up-and-coming symphony conductors, snatching the job of leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, starting next year, and catching the attention of music critics far and wide who acclaim him as possibly a once-in-a-generation maestro.
It's been a dizzying ride for a modest Venezuelan who came out of nowhere. Jay Leno and David Letterman are calling, and everybody else wants a piece of him. His schedule is already booked well into the next decade. The press has dubbed the hoopla as "Duda-mania."
And here he is, traveling across Asia with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and he couldn't be more joyous. That's because the orchestra was his ladder to success. Dudamel spent 22 years with the "musical miracle" system supporting the orchestra. Without the system, Dudamel knows he might be another trombonist pumping out salsa riffs with a band in Barquisimeto, his Venezuelan hometown, just as his father did.
The visit of Dudamel and the youth symphony has special resonance in China, a nation that prides itself as a rising musical power, where some 38 million students are believed to be studying piano and tens of millions practicing other instruments. China and Venezuela are linked by a bond — and perhaps a bit of a rivalry — over their musical gift. While China's musicians are renowned for technical proficiency, the Venezuelans are all passion.
"Could a country best known for corn, petroleum and revolutionary rhetoric dethrone the Middle Kingdom as classical music's heir apparent?" asked the Time Out Beijing magazine.
So when Dudamel took the podium at the National Grand Theater, one of China's new architectural jewels, Chinese officials, diplomats and other music aficionados eagerly awaited a chance to witness a conductor wearing the mantle as the new Leonard Bernstein or Carlos Kleiber. Some had questions, wondering if Dudamel had been overhyped.
The performance was electric as Dudamel led his youth symphony through Ravel, Castellano and Tchaikovsky, ending with a trademark encore from West Side Story that had musicians leaping from their seats, twirling instruments in the air and shouting "Bravo!" (Check it out on YouTube.)
"He's everybody's hope for the next generation of conductors — blazing energy, connects with audiences, down to earth. He puts on a hell of a show, which classical music needs," said David Stabler, classical music critic for The Oregonian, a newspaper in Portland, Ore.
Many countries, including China, voice interest in Venezuela's "musical miracle," seeking to learn from it or even replicate it. Already, young Chinese musicians are winning acclaim, most notably pianists Lang Lang and Yundi Li, and China wants to deepen its youth music system.
"We can learn much from our Venezuelan colleagues," said Chen Zuohuang, artistic director of the National Center for the Performing Arts.
Offstage, Dudamel still struggles a bit with English rather than his native Spanish. Nearly every professional musician he directs, however, enthuses over his ability to express himself from the podium, using hands, face and baton.
"It's very difficult to put into words. It's a confidence and a body language that very few conductors achieve," said Ernest Fleischman, retired manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who was on the jury that selected Dudamel and offered him the job to lead the symphony. "The musicians trust him from the first moment."
Musicians sense quickly whether a conductor really knows the score.
"They have to be on top of what every instrument is doing at every second. And an orchestra realizes in a nanosecond whether a conductor has it or not," said Mark Swed, a classical music critic at the Los Angeles Times.
Swed said Dudamel already has become "a huge celebrity" in Los Angeles even though his tenure doesn't begin until next year when he succeeds Esa-Pekka Salonen, a departing Finn.
"He has a gift like nobody has ever seen," Swed said. "The mood is one of enormous elation. People are so excited but also a little worried. How do you best utilize a talent like this?"
While Dudamel may be young, he's hardly untested. After winning the 2004 Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Germany, he's had engagements with the Berlin, Vienna and New York philharmonics, as well as the Boston Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic and conducting orchestras for opera at Italy's La Scala and Berlin Staastsoper.
His emergence has put a spotlight on the extraordinary system of children's and youth orchestras in Venezuela that specialize in absorbing at-risk youth, including juvenile delinquents, and turning them into classical musicians.
The youth orchestras were begun 33 years ago by a former legislator and cabinet member, Juan Antonio Abreu, who's also a trained violinist and harpsichordist. Abreu set up "el sistema," as it is known, as part social project and part music training ground. The program now has 150 children's and youth orchestras and music schools comprising 275,000 children.
Despite his newfound fame, Dudamel is utterly deferential to the 69-year-old Abreu, whom he refers to simply as "el maestro."
Others involved in the Venezuelan music system say they are not surprised that one of its graduates has flown to the top of the classical music world.
"Let me tell you, there are many people with the same potential as Gustavo in the system," said William Molina, a cellist who is director of strings for the youth orchestra system.
Dudamel concurred that many may follow in his footsteps. He himself began at age five in the Barquisimeto children's orchestra and spent his life in the system, under the tutelage of Abreu. Dudamel's father was a musician, playing both salsa and classical music.
"I was in love with the trombone because my father played the trombone. But my arm was too short for the trombone," Dudamel said. At age 10, he took up the violin. By age 12, he was tapped as a conductor, eventually taking over the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is at the apex of Venezuela's youth music system.
Now, even Los Angeles is trying, with the local Philharmonic and city officials setting up a youth orchestra comprised mainly of Latino and African-American youth from the inner city. Dudamel already has a hand in the project.
"I had my first rehearsal with this orchestra — 200 kids _on Saturday in South L.A. This was amazing!" Dudamel effused, breaking into vernacular English. "The hope of these kids, you know, is playing their instruments. Like wow! The future!"
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