As a novice when it comes to classical music, I didn’t know what to expect when I went to hear Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Israel Philharmonic last week in Jerusalem.

Sure, he’s got that great head of curly black hair that bounces around when he’s excited. Often described as that “young Venezuelan firebrand” (New York Times, November 2008), a wunderkind with a “remarkable capacity to think big and to get much of what he wants” (Los Angeles Times, January 2013), Dudamel’s reputation as the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (as well as of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in Venezuela) precedes him wherever he goes, so much so that the main hall at the International Convention Center was packed for the entirety of his hour-and-45-minute performance.

Gustavo Dudamel (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Urregoluis/Wikipedia Commons)

Gustavo Dudamel (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Urregoluis/Wikipedia Commons)

It wasn’t just the older crowd that tends to attend performances of the Philharmonic, either. This crowd was full of older music lovers as well as younger folk, many of them carrying their instruments and clearly arriving straight from one of the local music schools around the city. There was also more than one neophyte like myself in attendance, looking to see and hear what makes the 32-year-old Dudamel — once known as “the Dude” during his “younger” days — such a fixture in the classical music world.

From the start of the program, which began promptly at 8:30 p.m., leaving some late arrivals like myself leaning against the wall or sitting on the stairs, I could hear the difference in the energy of the music, the sharp, clear tones that emerged from the stage. I wasn’t overly familiar with the program, which began with Barber’s Adagio for strings, moving into Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major and then finishing with some Strauss, from Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegle, but it didn’t matter. I was mesmerized, and didn’t need the distractions of a program or further explanations about what I was hearing to understand how good it was.

It’s a similar experience for the Philharmonic musicians who performed with Dudamel, said Nir Erez, the lead trombone player in the IPO.

“You don’t want to miss playing with him,” said Erez, who has been with the orchestra for five years. “He brings a new spin to music that we know. That Strauss in the second half? It sounds like a scene in a movie.”

Exactly what I thought as well.

Dudamel didn’t receive great reviews for this visit, with some critics calling the music thin and blaming his excessive travel schedule and the cold he was battling last week. He was here for a brief stay, arriving last Monday and immediately rehearsing with the Philharmonic and performing a series of concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem through Saturday night.

“Dudamel is an experience,” said Tamar Melzer, an oboe player who has been with the Philharmonic for the last 21 years. “He creates a different kind of event, he’s not just another conductor. He looks out at us, at eye level. He’s very sensitive, and he’s ready to learn from any of us. He just doesn’t have a big ego.”

Melzer played with Dudamel in 2008 during his last visit in Israel, and she found him a little different this time — more mature (he now has a two-year-old daughter), slightly heavier, but still modest, a conductor who tries to befriend each musician in the orchestra.

Dudamel has spoken about the connection he feels with the Israel Philharmonic, telling Israeli blogger Omar Shomrony that the orchestra has a “Latin mind” like his, as well as a skilled set of musicians who are accustomed to direction from the likes of maestro music director Zubin Mehta.

“You don’t feel a distance from him the way you feel with other conductors,” said Erez. “You feel he’s there with us, one of us, but he knows how to put a spotlight on the music in just the right moment, and how to make it into an unforgettable experience during the concert itself. You just get it.”