Gustavo Dudamel’s focus on hair was apparent on his first day at the New York Philharmonic as heir apparent.
The 42-year-old conductor, famous for his bushy locks, magnetic personality and an ability to boost audiences, thought back to his 2007 debut with the orchestra.
“I came here still with black hair,” Dudamel said during a news conference Monday on the stage of David Geffen Hall, “And then immediately it was a connection — it was an artistical, deep, soul connection.”
His once-dark tresses were closely cropped and salt-and-pepper speckled. Dudamel talked about his maturation as he prepares to become music director for the 2026-27 season.
“When I was 24 — 23, 24, 25 — it was crazy. I was a wild animal, not only because my hair was huge,” he said. “Right now, yes, I’m not anymore a young promise, but I’m still young. … With the time, with experience, you change a lot, but I keep that wild, wild animal Gustavo that is always there — and only with less hair now.”
Dudamel, the first Latino to lead the oldest of the major American orchestras, recalled growing up in Venezuela.
“My father played the trombone in a salsa band,” he said. “I wanted to play salsa. That was my dream as a kid. At the beginning, I was not dreaming about the symphony orchestra.”
He enrolled in El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education program, at a young age. Showing charm and humor, he spoke at Monday’s news conference about how he conducted the New York Philharmonic when he was 8 or 9 — while listening to recordings.
“At home, for my family. For a good audience — for my puppets,” Dudamel said. “I rehearsed. I said, ‘This is not good.’”
His first trip to New York was in 1995 with Venezuela’s national student orchestra.
“We were blessed because we came for only one night,” he said. “There was a storm, a snowstorm, and we had to stay one more day.”
Dudamel became music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in 1999. served as principal conductor of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from 2007-12 and took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2009-10 season. He announced Feb. 7 he will give up the LA role in 2026 when he assumes the New York podium from Jaap Van Zweden, who departs after the 2023-24 season.
Wearing a suit and dress shirt but no tie as he sat beside New York Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda, Dudamel said the city “can enrich my soul, my spirit as an artist and as a citizen of the world.”
Dudamel cited José Antonio Abreu, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle as mentors. He name-checked many predecessors as New York music director, including Leonard Bernstein, whose baton Dudamel accidently broke during his debut run.
About 30 musicians from the New York Philharmonic attended the news conference and a reception after, welcoming Dudamel with hugs and handshakes. When he guest-conducted the orchestra last May, the players gave him Widow Jane bourbon from Brooklyn as part of the wooing.
Dudamel, who currently calls Barcelona home, spoke fluently English and Spanish, at one point quipping: “I wanted to answer in Italian.”
He hopes to change a mentality that classical music “is is only for rich people.”
“Young people get afraid (of) classical, because this feels a little bit like the old car or vintage,” he said. “Music is made in the moment. Even if Beethoven wrote … in 1807 a symphony, this music that we are playing is happening right now, so it’s not any more music from that time; it’s music from this time.”
After at first declining to speak of Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil, Dudamel criticized his nation’s government in 2017 for suppressing protests. Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro then canceled the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra’s U.S. tours.
“I have nothing at present physically with the orchestra. We have been in contact all the time,” Dudamel said. “The orchestra is in amazing shape. I had the chance to see them a few months ago. It’s my orchestra. It’s my family. … I hope in the near future we will be doing thousands of things again together.”
Dudamel pushed for the 2007 establishment of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. At Monday’s news conference, he sidestepped whether he hoped for a similar program in New York and said he would have to learn more about the community.
He tried to avoid answering whether he would root for the Yankees or Mets.
“Cardenales,” Dudamel said, referring to the Venezuela team from his hometown of Barquisimeto. “I played a lot of baseball. I was good.”