Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel: the fiery maestro taking on Paris Opera

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel was only a teenager when he first picked up a conductor's baton, and has since conquered many of the world's orchestral stages.

Having just turned 40, the lively maestro with a mop of curly hair is taking on a new challenge: he will be the new musical director of the Paris Opera.

For more than a decade, Dudamel has been wielding his baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he rose to be artistic director and secure a multi-million-dollar contract and he will keep that role even as he takes over in Paris.

He is certainly one of the most in-demand conductors in the world, but has also attracted controversy, with some Venezuelans charging he has turned a blind eye to the authoritarian excesses of the government in Caracas.

Indeed, Dudamel -- a product of El Sistema, his home country's renowned state-sponsored music education program begun in 1975 -- conducted at the funeral of late Socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

But he says his silence is a way to keep politics out of El Sistema, which has reached hundreds of thousands of underprivileged kids.

The programme's late founder Jose Antonio Abreu named Dudamel to lead the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra -- now known as the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra -- when he was just 18.

Dudamel won a number of competitions, including the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany in 2004.

Two years later, he earned his first major orchestra job when he was named to conduct the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.

And then in 2009, still in his late 20s, he took the baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

- 'Who could imagine?' -

Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto in western Venezuela on January 26, 1981. The son of a trombonist father and a voice teacher mother always had music in his life.

He studied violin as a child, but quickly gravitated towards conducting.

On his website, he describes conducting an orchestra made up of his toys as a boy and, at age 13, setting aside his violin and picking up the baton when his youth orchestra conductor was late.

Mayerlin Carrero, a fellow Venezuelan who plays trombone in the Miami Symphony Orchestra, remembers Dudamel from their youth, specifically a concert at a music camp in 1994.

"He was a youngster who told tons of jokes, was very outgoing and always happy, but very focused at the same time," Carrero told AFP.

That focus would shift in Dudamel's early teen years to conducting.

"Who could imagine that a child from Barquisimeto would be the first Venezuelan to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?" Dudamel tweeted in January 2019.

- 'A bit eccentric'

Dudamel first drew notice for his expressive movements as a conductor, his hair bouncing with every gesture. He often closes his eyes while conducting, and shows a lot of emotion.

"His way of conducting has always been a bit eccentric, a bit different," Linda Briceno, a Venezuelan trumpet player also formed in El Sistema, told AFP.

Robert Fink, the associate dean at the Herb Alpert School of Music at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), called Dudamel a "real talent" and noted he was "well-liked by orchestras because of his personality."

But Fink said he was "not an innovator," noting: "His instincts seem to be very conventional."

"His models are all very mainstream European conductors, and remember, he first came to prominence winning a European conducting competition," Fink told AFP.

Dudamel, who is twice married and has a son from his first marriage, has tried hard to stay away from the political chaos in his home country, while remaining something of a national hero.

In 2017, he finally spoke out against current Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, denouncing a deadly crackdown on anti-government protests.

But even that reversal sparked skepticism from his naysayers.

"After benefiting from the regime, I think his words are just hot air," said Venezuelan composer and pianist Gabriela Montero, who has long criticized the maestro.