Classical music gets its savior (again)

The sharp observor may have detected that I don't write nearly enough about classical music. This could be attributed to some combination of ignorance and circumstance.

Here's an exception: On Wednesday, PBS gives prime time over to a zestful young conductor, still not quite 30.

This is the story I sent to papers. If you're reading this in the Lansing, Mich., area, keep in mind that the Tavis Smiley hour will be pushed to WKAR World (23.4), because of a Gov. Granholm interview:


Generations ago, a young-ish conductor
and a young-ish medium combined. With Leonard Bernstein, television
became (temporarily) a classical-music world in the 1950s and '60s.

Now meet Gustavo Dudamel, ready to
repeat that. On Wednesday, he gets all of PBS' prime time; his Los
Angeles Philharmonic concert is preceded by a Tavis Smiley

And this conductor won't turn 30 until
next month. Smiley recalls a comment from one of his talk-show
guests: “Quincy Jones said, 'Dudamel is the next Bernstein.'”

Others have agreed. The Los Angeles
Times described “Dudamania”; the “60 Minutes” show told of
“Gustavo the Great.” Adam Hart adds: “He's very funny and …
his hair starts flopping everywhere.”

Adam – a 12-year-old timpanist –
said that in the Smiley hour, which is partly about music education.

“Dudamel is arriving at a great time
to get us thinking,” Smiley said. “What is the price we pay for
abandoning music education?”

Smiley argues that music is a huge
benefit, even for the vast majority of people who never do it
professionally. His own life offers a prime example.

He was born in Mississippi, but grew up
near Bunker Hill, Ind. … which might seem like the musical
boondocks, except that it was near Cole Porter's home town. Smiley
was second-chair saxophone, conducted two church choirs, then went to
Indiana University, with its prestigious music school. As a student,
he heard Ray Charles, John Mellencamp, Leontyne Price, Itzhak Perlman
and more.

Now he lives in Los Angeles, which
keeps trying to nudge its once-invisible classical reputation. In
2003, it opened the spectacular Disney Concert Hall; in 2009, the
Philharmonic hired Dudamel as music director and put his image on
billboards and lightposts.

“If you live in Los Angeles, it's
impossible to miss him,” Smiley said. “He's conducting traffic.”

This all began in 2004, Philharmonic
executive Deborah Borda tells Smiley in the special. At 24, Dudamel
had won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize; the Philharmonic's music
director, one of the judges, promptly told her to sign him as guest
conductor and added, “he's a real conducting animal.”

Like Bernstein did, Dudamel brings
flash and flair. “He has swagger, charisma and charm … but he
also has all the skills,” Smiley said.

The son of a trombonist and a voice
teacher, Dudamel joined the Venezuelan music program, El Sistema. He
has zest, charm … and a ballerina/journalist wife who looks like a

Smiley sees another benefit: “This
guy is a person of color and we need more young people of color” in
classical music.

Dudamel is primarily Latino, but he
said his family includes a French great-grandmother who married an
African-American. “This is from my great-grandfather –
completely,” he said of his hair.

That hair – with curls flying – is
one of the things young Adam Hart savors. Another is the music
itself: “It just fills me up with joy,” he told Smiley.

Adam is one of many black musicians in
the Youth Orchestra, which Dudamel works with. “When these kids get
to play in the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall, that's a great thing,”
Smiley said.

Dudamel also wants to see programs like
El Sistema in other worlds. There are already a few in the U.S.;
Smiley visited one in Boston. Someday, there may be more; at 29,
Dudamel still has time.

– “Dudamel: Conducting a Life,” 8
p.m. Wednesday (Dec.29)

– “Great Performances,” Dudamel
conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic and tenor Juan Diego Florez,
9-11 p.m. Wednesday

– PBS (check local listings); also,
many PBS stations air the “Tavis Smiley” talk show at various

-- In the Lansing area, the Smiley special is moved to WKAR World (23.4 digital) because a Gov. Granholm interview will be on WKAR. WKAR World is also the channel that airs Smiley's talk show, at noon and 12:30 p.m. weekdays.