Gustavo Dudamel’s focus on his hair was evident on his first day at the New York Philharmonic as heir apparent.
Known for his bushy hair, charismatic personality and ability to captivate audiences, the 42-year-old conductor recalls his 2007 debut with the orchestra.
“I came here with black hair,” Dudamel said Monday at a news conference on stage at David Geffen Hall, “and immediately it became a connection — an artistic, A deep, soulful connection.”
His once-black hair had been cropped short and had salt and pepper flecks. Dudamel has spoken of his maturity 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 beast, and not just because I had big hair,” he says. “Now, yes, I’m no longer a young commitment, but I’m still young. … You change a lot over time, with experience, but I kept Gustavo, the wild animal that has always been there – just now with less hair.”
Dudamel, the first Latino to lead the oldest major U.S. symphony orchestra, recalled growing up in Venezuela.
“My dad played the trombone in the salsa band,” he said. “I wanted to play salsa. That was my childhood dream. In the beginning, I didn’t dream about a symphony orchestra.”
At a very young age, he participated in El Sistema, a music education program in Venezuela. At a news conference on Monday, he was charming and humorous, recounting how he was conducting the New York Philharmonic when he was 8 or 9 years old — while listening to recordings.
“At home, for my family. For the 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 the National Student Orchestra of Venezuela.
“We were lucky because we only came one night,” he said. “There was a storm, a blizzard, and we had to stay an extra day.”
Dudamel became music director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in 1999. He was chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden from 2007-12 and took over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 2009-10. He announced on Feb. 7 that he will take over the New York podium from Jaap Van Zweden in 2026, when he relinquishes his role in Los Angeles, which will leave after the 2023-24 season.
Dudamel, in a suit and dress shirt but no tie, sat next to New York Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda, who said the city “can enrich my soul and enrich me as an artist.” and world citizenship.”
Dudamel names Jose Antonio Abreu, Daniel Barenboim, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle as mentors. He nominated a number of former New York music directors, including Leonard Bernstein, whose baton Dudamel accidentally snapped during his debut performance.
About 30 musicians from the New York Philharmonic attended the press conference and subsequent reception, where they welcomed Dudamel with hugs and handshakes. Last May, when he was guest conducting the orchestra, the musicians gifted him Widow Jane bourbon from Brooklyn as part of a courtship.
Dudamel, who now calls Barcelona home, speaks fluent English and Spanish, once quipped: “I want to answer in Italian.”
He hopes to change the mentality that classical music is “only for the rich”.
“Young people are afraid of classics because it feels a bit like an old car or an antique,” he said. “Music is made in the present. Even though Beethoven wrote a symphony in 1807, this music that we’re playing is happening now, so it’s no longer the music of that time; it’s the music of this time.”
After initially refusing to speak about Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil, Dudamel criticized his country’s government in 2017 for cracking down on protests. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro subsequently canceled the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra’s US tour.
“I don’t currently have any relationship with the orchestra. We’re always in touch,” Dudamel said. “The state of the orchestra is amazing. I had the opportunity to meet them a few months ago. This is my orchestra. This is my family. … I hope we can do it together again in the near future Thousands of things.
Dudamel facilitated the creation of the Los Angeles Youth Symphony in 2007. At a news conference on Monday, he sidestepped whether he wanted a similar project in New York, saying he had to learn more about the neighborhood.
He tried to avoid answering whether he was rooting for the Yankees or the Mets.
“Cardenales,” Dudamel said, referring to the Venezuelan team from his hometown of Barquisimeto. “I played a lot of baseball. I was fine.