It is a rain-battered August day in Edinburgh, and inside the city's Usher Hall the conductor Gustavo Dudamel is having difficulty with the strings. It is the final rehearsal of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, and Dudamel wants the violins to be more biting and caustic. Any successful performance of Shostakovich's 10th must reflect its historical context: Stalin's purges; some 20 million dead; a composer who lived in constant fear of the knock on the door. "Muchachos," Dudamel says, searching for the right expression. "Pop pop pop!" he says, mimicking the sound of a firing squad.
It's an unlikely image from a man as decidedly unmilitaristic as Dudamel. As a child growing up in the Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto, he was given a set of toy soldiers by his mother. Instead of waging war, he arranged the soldiers into an orchestra and began conducting them. The ascent of his career since then has been breathtakingly swift: the winner of a major conducting competition at 23, he was offered Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra at 25; then, in April, on the strength of only two guest appearances, the storied Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that the 26-year-old would succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director in 2009.
Simon Rattle, one of Dudamel's mentors, has called him "the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across." Daniel Barenboim and Claudio Abbado lavish similar praise on him a virtual anointing by the three giants of European conducting. Deutsche Grammophon has given Dudamel a record deal, and, between now and mid-October he is on a high-profile European tour that will take him to historic concert halls in Germany, Sweden, Italy and France.
So what makes Dudamel so special? The role of a conductor is at once comprehensible and untranslatable. The task is dauntingly clear: to mold about 100 anarchic artists into his own, singular vision. To do so, he must use only visible cues with musical players necessarily attuned to the aural a sort of sign language not for the hearing impaired, but the hearing enhanced.
Ed Smith, managing director of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, says that what makes Dudamel extraordinary is his ability to conduct in two directions, communicating with musicians and with the audience. This requires an athlete's physicality. A fit young man, Dudamel has already begun to adopt the posture of his first conducting teacher, José Antonio Abreu, who at 68 is almost hunchbacked from years of pouring himself forward into the orchestra. During delicate passages for the winds, Dudamel reaches his hands into the orchestra as if picking low-hanging fruit; in more violent ones, he attempts to move whole walls of sound with his outstretched arms.
Talk to other conductors about Dudamel's qualities and they speak of electricity, vibrancy and magic, and of a uniquely expressive stick technique. But at the Edinburgh rehearsal, it's clear that sheer persistence and patience are also at work. It has been 20 minutes and Dudamel is still not happy with his violins. In more romantic Russian pieces, the strings can act as a swaying hammock between the spikes of the percussion and the brass. But in Shostakovich, they must be part of a shrill, totalitarian attack on the senses. The energy isn't there after a delayed charter flight from Caracas, everyone is on three hours' sleep. Worse, these are teenagers on three hours' sleep. Dudamel is conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the showcase of a 200,000-strong Venezuelan youth system from which he emerged. Three-quarters of the musicians aged 12 to 26 live below the poverty line. He has been their music director since he was 17.
When the relationship works, the orchestra feels for its conductor an uncomplicated love, akin to a child's love for a parent, that is the result of endless hours spent scrutinizing and absorbing every nuance of his body, face and soul. It is clear that Dudamel has this unusual power of contact with the orchestra. As the strings finally attack with a ferocity that matches Dudamel's convulsions on the podium, the whole orchestra lifts into a flight of majestic fury; they have their Shostakovich at last.
Can Dudamel, still a raw talent, translate this magic to a major orchestra when he moves to L.A.? During transitional phrases, he can exhibit a young man's impatience, as if waiting for, rather than earning, the exciting passages (he conducted portions of the Edinburgh rehearsal with one hand in his pocket). Will he maintain the orchestra's respect? "Of course there are concerns," Simon Rattle says, before evoking again the mysterious nonlinguistic rapport between musicians and their leader. "But with Gustavo the music is the answer to every question you could ask of him."
It's 8 p.m., and the orchestra is back at the Usher Hall. Dudamel takes the podium for the Shostakovich. He lifts the baton. The strings ready themselves. Dudamel meets the gaze of his orchestra, their upturned eyes glistening under the bright lights. The bond between them is unmistakable; their performance is breathtaking.