When conductor Gustavo Dudamel mounted the podium in his debut with the New York Philharmonic in November, he was carrying something special. Moments before he went onstage for the first of four concerts, the orchestra's archivist went to his dressing room to lend him a baton used by Leonard Bernstein. "I could not speak," says Dudamel. And he was speechless again, near the end of his last concert, when the baton suddenly snapped in two. But it wasn't a bad omen—even without that talisman, the comparisons to Bernstein (who broke plenty of batons himself) were starting to stick. Only 26, Dudamel is a hugely talented conductor whose infectious delight in music echoes Bernstein's electric appeal. But it's more than his charisma, says Deborah Borda, the president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who signed Dudamel to become its music director in 2009. As violinist Gil Shaham, the soloist for the New York concerts, puts it, "With Gustavo, the chops are all there. The technique, the mastery—he has it all."
Since the Venezuelan wonder boy won an international competition in Germany in 2004, he's created a sensation in classical music. Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic called him "the most astonishingly gifted conductor I've come across." The son of a trombone player, Dudamel grew up with music. He recalls finding a yellowed book on sight reading—"it was a small book with a wonderful smell"—in his father's library when he was 4 or 5, and he began to teach himself. Later he'd set up Lego figures, put on a Tchaikovsky or Beethoven album and conduct the toys. His formal training began via Venezuela's remarkable music program known as El Sistema, which puts instruments into the hands of 250,000 kids yearly, many from poor families. Dudamel played violin but started conducting around the age of 12. By 17 he was leading the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the best in the program.
This past year he took the Bolívar Orchestra on tour, earning rave reviews in London and New York. Check out clips from their concerts on YouTube and see how energetic Dudamel is, with his bright gaze, dimpled smile and dark curls flying as he conducts. His youth and exuberance make him a great hope to pull in new audiences at the L.A. Phil—and it doesn't hurt that he's Latino in a city where more than 50 percent of the population speaks Spanish. "He's a real messenger about music," says Borda. "And people get that." Just in time for his arrival, the philharmonic is launching its own youth orchestra, and Dudamel couldn't be happier. "It is so beautiful when you see the face of a kid who changed his or her life with a musical instrument," he says. Even the Lakers are jumping on the Dudamel bandwagon. They've given him a jersey emblazoned with DUDAMEL and the number 24. Short of seats next to Jack Nicholson, it doesn't get better than that.