When Gustavo Dudamel was a little boy in Venezuela, his mother gave him a set of toy soldiers. Dudamel promptly arranged them into an orchestra which he pretended to conduct.
A few short years later, at 17, he became music director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. And in 2009, he'll step into the major league as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In this week's New Classical Tracks, Dudamel leads the SBYO in a farewell to childhood, of sorts: Mahler's Symphony No. 5, a departure from the composer's youth-centric earlier work.
It was a new era in Mahler's life. A brush with death and his marriage to Alma found musical expression in his Fifth Symphony, which manages to be funereal, romantic and exuberant in turn. No. 5 sees Mahler moving away from the fantasy world of his "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," stepping into the world of adults.
It's a nice choice for Dudamel, who has literally grown up with the musicians of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and who has already leapt into the professional world, guest-conducting the likes of the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony orchestras as well as settling into his first season as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.
No matter where his future takes him, it's clear his heart will always be with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and the amazing Venezuelan music system from which it sprang.
About 250,000 kids, three-quarters of them living below the poverty line, are given intensive musical training. The best of the lot are funneled into regional orchestras, which in turn send their best up to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
The young players, 12 to 26 years old, and their young conductor have a connection that is both electric and comfortable -- the kind of rapport you sometimes see in large families, where shared history develops into a kind of intuitive sibling shorthand.
They play wonderfully well together, moving comfortably from Wagnerian chorale to decidedly un-Wagnerian klezmer to the gentlest of sighs. Though the group does at times show its age, or lack thereof (most notably in the solo sections), the recording as a whole is a pleasure to get lost in.
I've always heard magic in Mahler's music -- the old kind of earthy magic, where the spirits of trees have lively conversations, where those distant lights in the mist are actually fairies, and where even a grownup can consider the possibility of the fantastic.