The violins were tuning, the woodwinds warming up and the trumpets blaring bits of Mahler. Then the musicians of the New York Philharmonic began to whistle and cheer.
Gustavo Dudamel, one of the world’s biggest conducting stars, strode onto the stage this month for his first rehearsal with the Philharmonic since being named the ensemble’s next music director. On the program was Mahler’s epic Ninth Symphony.
“I will have the opportunity in the next few days to hug everybody,” he told the musicians, smiling and pumping his fist. “I’m very honored to become part of the family.”
As it happened, the orchestra’s new hall, the recently renovated David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, was occupied that day, so Dudamel’s first rehearsal took place at its old home, Carnegie Hall. Dudamel said he felt a connection to Mahler, who conducted the Philharmonic at Carnegie when he was its music director from 1909 to 1911.
“This was Mahler’s orchestra,” he said, noting Mahler’s ties to New York when he wrote it. “Even if they are not the same musicians, they have that heritage of Mahler.”
While Dudamel does not take the podium in New York until 2026, his five days with the Philharmonic this month, for rehearsals and performances of the Mahler, were an unofficial start. They came at a moment of transition for him in more ways then one: a week later he would announce that he was resigning as music director of the Paris Opera. But New York felt like a new beginning, and as he got to know the orchestra and the city, he offered a mantra for his tenure: “We will have a lot of fun.”
There were Champagne toasts and rites of passage. In his dressing room Dudamel examined a Mahler score that once belonged to Leonard Bernstein, a predecessor and noted Mahlerian. There were hours of intense rehearsals, during which Dudamel urged the players to embrace Mahler’s operatic impulses and his varied style.
“It’s not bipolar, it’s tripolar,” he said of one passage. “This is Freud. A new character — a new spectrum of humanity.”
When Dudamel and the orchestra got back to Geffen Hall for the final rehearsals and performances, there were some surprises.
After a spectral whirring sound surfaced during an open rehearsal, he turned to the audience. “Maybe it’s Mahler,” he said.
Throughout his visit, Dudamel was greeted as a rock star, with musicians lining up for selfies and hugs.
“You’re part of my family,” Cynthia Phelps, the principal violist, told him at a reception. “Welcome.”
Dudamel thanked the musicians, saying he never imagined he would one day lead one of the world’s top orchestras.
“To arrive here, to achieve this connection with you, is for me a prize of life,” he said. “We will develop this love, this connection.”
At the opening concert, Dudamel was nervous. As is his custom, he conducted the symphony, one of the repertory’s most sweeping and profound works, from memory. At the end of the piece, Dudamel abstained from solo bows, gesturing instead to highlight the contributions of the members of the orchestra.
Backstage, an aide handed Dudamel a glass of scotch.
“My God,” he said. “What a journey.”