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New Classical Tracks: Dances with irresistible Latin flair

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Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel, Fiesta
Album cover

If you've been paying any attention at all in the last year or so, you've probably heard the name Gustavo Dudamel.  

Critics, audiences and fellow conductors alike have been blown away by the passion of this very young Venezuelan conductor, and by his ability to elicit the same passion from an orchestra.  

He's been tapped to take over as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, and currently leads the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Last fall, Dudamel brought the group to the U.S. and audiences in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles got to see what the fuss was all about. 

In addition to praising the energy, skill and joy of both conductor and orchestra, news stories never failed to mention the orchestra's signature encore, Leonard Bernstein's "Mambo" from "West Side Story."  Cellos are spun like salsa dancers, and there's a lot of leaping onto chairs and clapping and general mayhem.  And it's irresistible.

Dudamel's latest recording with the SBYO is "Fiesta," an all-Latin dance party with music from Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia...and New York.

"Learning to dance is part of our culture -- it's in our blood," said Dudamel. "Latin music is all about dance, about rhythm.  And we try to put this spice into all of our music."

Not all dance is frantic, of course.  "Noon on the Plain" by Antonio Estevez paints a slow, sultry picture of the Venezuelan steppes with its endless grasslands.  

"Santa Cruz de Pacairigua" gives us a taste of Feast of the Holy Cross celebrations in Caracas, both from the noble and the rustic sides of town.  At the end of a long day of drinking and carousing, the rich and the poor sound pretty much the same. 

At the first annual Mahler Conducting Competition back in 2004, participants were asked to bring one piece from their home countries.  Gustavo Dudamel brought Fuga con Pajarillo by Aldemaro Romero.  He describes it as "wonderful, but difficult."  

It's not just the piece itself that's tricky -- the very dance upon which it's based is somewhat uncomfortable.  It's in 3/4 time like a waltz, but where a waltz gives you a big first beat -- think OOM pa pa -- the pajarillo has a strong second beat.  Try dancing to "pa OOM pa, pa OOM pa" and see how graceful you look!  

Combine the off rhythm of the pajarillo with a complicated fugue, and you've got a fascinating showpiece.  And a prize-winner:  Dudamel clinched first prize at the Mahler competition that year, when he was just 23.

Now 27, Dudamel is poised to take over as music director and principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009.  In the meantime, he continues to guest conduct around the world and lead his hometown band, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

The orchestra is a product of the remarkable Venezuelan program, El Sistema (The System).  It actively scours the cities for kids of any income, provides them with instruments and training and orchestras to play in. And a new extended family.

Dudamel says he's been making music with some of these young people for more than 20 years.  

"It's like we are brothers, sisters.  We are a body.  I think that this is a special thing," he said. 

It is a special thing, and it makes for some pretty special music-making.