Gustavo Dudamel, Star Maestro, to Leave L.A. for New York Philharmonic

LOS ANGELES — Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose fiery baton and bouncy curls have made him one of classical music’s most recognizable figures, will leave his post in 2026 to become the music director of the New York Philharmonic, both orchestras announced on Tuesday.

“What I see is an amazing orchestra in New York and a lot of potential for developing something important,” he said in an interview. “It’s like opening a new door and building a new house. It’s a beautiful time.”

The appointment of Dudamel, 42, is a major coup for the New York Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, which was once led by giants including Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein. Just a decade ago, there were concerns about its future, given the languishing efforts to renovate its lackluster hall and questions about its artistic direction. Now its home, David Geffen Hall, has reopened after a $550 million renovation, and it has secured in Dudamel the rare maestro whose fame transcends classical music, even as he is sought by the world’s leading ensembles.

His departure is a significant loss for Los Angeles, where since 2009 Dudamel has helped build a vast cultural empire and helped turn the orchestra into one of the most innovative and financially successful in the United States.

He was lured east by Deborah Borda, the New York Philharmonic’s powerful president and chief executive, in an instance of classical music history repeating itself. She signed the 26-year-old Dudamel to the Los Angeles Philharmonic back when she led that ensemble, and helped make him a superstar in its relatively new Walt Disney Concert Hall. Now she hopes to repeat that success in New York.

“It’s a wonderful match,” said Borda, who arranged the deal in one of her last big pieces of business before she steps down from her post at the end of June. “I’m joyous for our orchestra. I’m joyous for our city.”

The terms of the deal were not disclosed. Dudamel, one of the highest-paid artists in the industry, earned $2.8 million during a recent season in Los Angeles. In New York, he will be given the expanded title of music and artistic director, to match his current role. He will succeed Jaap van Zweden — first as music director designate in the 2025-26 season, then as the orchestra’s 27th music director in the 2026-27 season — with an initial contract for five years.

Dudamel, who was born in Venezuela, will be the orchestra’s first Hispanic leader, in a city where Latinos make up about 29 percent of the population. His appointment comes as the Philharmonic has worked to connect with new audiences, especially young people and Black and Latino residents.

Classical music audiences typically skew older, but Dudamel is a rare figure who has been able to galvanize traditionalists and newcomers alike. He has made nurturing a younger generation of artists and music fans a priority, building a youth orchestra in Los Angeles modeled on El Sistema — the Venezuelan-based movement, in which he trained, that weds teaching and social work.

Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where his contract with the Los Angeles Philharmonic will expire at the end of the 2025-26 season.Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

And he is unique among modern conductors for his pop-culture celebrity. Dudamel has appeared in a Super Bowl halftime show and voiced Trollzart in the animated film “Trolls World Tour.” He inspired the wunderkind Latin American conductor played by Gael García Bernal on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle” and made a cameo appearance on the show. (“Hear the Hair” was its parody of a classical music marketing campaign.) In addition to making recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic, he has conducted on soundtracks of a recent “Star Wars” film and Steven Spielberg’s version of “West Side Story.” In 2019, he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Dudamel now faces the difficult task of attempting to raise the New York Philharmonic’s standing in American cultural life while helping it navigate a series of challenges, including dwindling ticket revenues, shifting audience behavior since the pandemic and persistent questions about the relevance of classical music and live performance today.

Dudamel said that as music and artistic director, he would champion new music and work to develop the orchestra’s sound, now that the musicians had a hall in which they could fully hear each other onstage.

“There are no limits, especially in an orchestra with such a history,” he said. “I see an incredible infinite potential of building something unique for the world.”

Dudamel, who has been the music director of the Paris Opera since 2021, and of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela since 1999, was a favorite for the podium in New York as soon as it became vacant. In the fall of 2021, van Zweden announced that he would step down at the end of the 2023-24 season after a six-year tenure.

When Dudamel appeared at the Philharmonic last spring, for a two-program Schumann symphony cycle, some players, hoping to win him over, showed up to rehearsals bearing gifts and handwritten notes. Inside his dressing room, a group of musicians gave him a bottle of the Brooklyn-made Widow Jane bourbon, telling him the Philharmonic would welcome him if he could find a way to spend more time in New York.

“Everything comes alive with him,” said Christopher Martin, the orchestra’s principal trumpet. “Everything is as natural as breathing.”

Borda said that it was Dudamel’s long and fruitful relationship with the Philharmonic — he has led 26 concerts with the orchestra since his debut in 2007 — that had made him the choice of the musicians, board members and managers. She recounted meeting him secretly in various European cities over the past year, often flying in and out within 24 hours to avoid suspicion, as she tried to secure a deal. (Seeing him in Los Angeles, she said, “just didn’t feel kosher.”)

In October, when Dudamel was in New York to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she took him on a tour of the renovated hall during a rehearsal, taking a circuitous route to sneak him onto the third tier so that even the orchestra’s musicians would not know. The attempt at secrecy was foiled when they bumped into Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was preparing for a gala performance.

The secrecy was broken on Tuesday afternoon when the New York Philharmonic’s musicians were summoned for an announcement shortly after a rehearsal with the guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Some worried that the news would be bad; only members of the orchestra committee knew what the meeting would be about.

Judith LeClair, the New York Philharmonic’s principal bassoon, reacted to the news of Dudamel’s hiring on Tuesday.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

With the players reunited onstage, Borda and her successor, Gary Ginstling, stepped onto the podium.

“Our next music director will be,” Borda said, with a pause, “Gustavo Dudamel.”

The musicians erupted into 20 seconds of applause, in a journey from wide-eyed surprise to whistles and cheers, genuine expressions of joy. Judith LeClair, the bassoonist, was the most animated of them, looking dumbfounded before holding a radiant smile through the rest of Borda’s speech.

“The Philharmonic has had its ups and downs,” Borda told them. “And it had an amazing time in the ’60s, when we were golden,” she added, referring to Bernstein’s music directorship. “I really feel the promise of that again.”

Afterward, members of the orchestra were visibly elated. The oboist Ryan Roberts, who grew up in Los Angeles, called his mother there: “Mom, guess who our new music director is.” She could be heard responding with Dudamel’s name, virtually screaming with excitement.

The appointment of Dudamel is the latest chapter in a remarkable career. Born in the Barquisimeto, Venezuela, he grew up in a musical family: His mother was a voice teacher, and his father a trombonist who played in salsa bands. He enrolled in El Sistema as a child and studied violin and composition before pursuing conducting.

He sometimes faced questions about his ties to Venezuelan leaders — he conducted at the funeral of President Hugo Chávez — but tried to remain above the political fray. But in 2017, after a young El Sistema-trained viola player was killed during a street protest, Dudamel issued a statement that said “enough is enough” and wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times accusing the government of flouting the Venezuelan constitution. President Nicolás Maduro canceled several overseas tours by Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra as punishment, and Dudamel did not return to Venezuela until a quiet trip late last year.

Dudamel has been a champion of new music, collaborating in Los Angeles with composers including John Adams and Gabriela Ortiz. He has also joined forces with pop and jazz stars, such as Billie Eilish and Herbie Hancock. The New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe wrote in 2017 that the Los Angeles Philharmonic was “the most important orchestra in America. Period.”

At the New York Philharmonic, Dudamel will lead an organization that is smaller than his Los Angeles empire, and one that has struggled in recent decades with financial troubles. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, with its Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall as well as the Hollywood Bowl, garnered about $187 million in yearly revenue before the pandemic. The New York Philharmonic earned $86 million.

Chad Smith, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, congratulated Dudamel on the move, praised his tenure there for leaving “indelible marks on classical music” and hinted at the orchestra’s next steps.

“From our earliest days, the L.A. Phil has been a trailblazer, boldly embracing the new, welcoming the world’s greatest artists to our stages and redefining the role of an orchestra in our community,” he said in a statement. “The search for our next music director will be conducted with this same spirit as we define the future of our organization.”

Dudamel broke the news on Tuesday to Los Angeles players after a rehearsal, telling them that he would always be an Angeleno.

Dale Breidenthal, a violinist in the orchestra, said Dudamel’s departure was stunning for the ensemble. “We haven’t processed it,” she said on her way out from the rehearsal. Still, she added, New York needed his talents. “We are really excited for him,” she said.

Dudamel said he did not expect to build a replica of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in New York. “It’s impossible,” he said. “They are completely different cultures.”

Still, he said, he would like to explore the idea of creating a youth education program similar to his efforts in Los Angeles. “It will be very important that we really develop social action through music,” he said. “For artistic institutions in the world, it’s important to embrace and to build. It will be very beautiful.”

Borda, who returned to New York in 2017 after 17 years at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, balanced the New York Philharmonic’s budget and built up its once-depleted endowment. She also helped bring to fruition the long-delayed renovation of Geffen Hall, working with Henry Timms, the president and chief executive of Lincoln Center, to push it through ahead of schedule during the pandemic shutdown.

That renovation has helped to revitalize the orchestra; speaking with the players on Tuesday, Borda told them, “It’s really because of you that he’s coming” but added, “And I have to say, it doesn’t hurt to have a nicer hall.”

Paid attendance so far this season has hovered around 88 percent, compared with 74 percent before the pandemic, though the revamped hall is somewhat smaller. But the ensemble is still grappling with a host of questions about its identity and vision.

Borda offered Dudamel two gifts while wooing him. One, given early in the search, was a program book from a Philharmonic tour of Venezuela in 1958, with a cover designed by the artist Carlos Cruz-Diez.

The other, which he received as the deal was being finalized, was a pencil that was used to compose music by an artist who will now be his predecessor: Leonard Bernstein.

Dudamel said in the interview that he would always maintain a connection to Los Angeles.

“I don’t feel that I’m leaving this place or that it will be goodbye forever,” he said. “All the time I have spent here and all the experience that I have built here, I will bring to New York to build something new. This is life. I don’t feel that it’s an end.”

Joshua Barone contributed reporting from New York.

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