Maestro on a mission
May 27, 2010
A few years ago, a former LAPD commander I knew from my days on the City Council wrote me an interesting letter. It wasn’t about the latest crime-fighting or community policing strategies—at least not in the usual sense of those terms. Instead, he wrote to urge me to keep pushing for musical education and expanded access to classical music in our county. His reason? “I never arrested a youngster who played a musical instrument.”
I viscerally understood what he meant. As a youngster, I was what we call today a “latchkey child.” My mother died when I was 10, and my dad worked afternoons and evenings. Fortunately, in those days we still had musical education in our public schools. When I entered Bancroft Jr. High School in Hollywood, I joined the “Beginning Woodwinds” class and was assigned the oboe, one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra. For three years I religiously rehearsed at school and practiced at home.
That oboe was a loaner, but I got to keep something important: an unforgettable educational experience that not only broadened my cultural horizons but also, as I now realize, kept me out of trouble.
All of this came back to me on Saturday afternoon, when I went to the Walt Disney Concert Hall to watch Gustavo Dudamel conduct Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA). This is a music education program undertaken by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and inspired by Venezuela’s legendary El Sistema, which produced Dudamel.
El Sistema–created in 1975 by the visionary Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, who still oversees it–has placed musical instruments in the hands of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan youth and created orchestras in all of the country’s major cities, and many of the smaller ones as well. It’s more than a musical exercise; it’s an incredibly powerful social program with an international message that’s going viral. The best of the El Sistema musicians make up the internationally acclaimed Simon Bolivar Orchestra, which tours the world and last year thrilled Los Angeles audiences at Disney Hall.
Now, with Dudamel as the Philharmonic’s Music Director, the El Sistema-style program started here in 2007 is on the verge of great things. YOLA now has 300 participants who observe a rigorous practice and rehearsal schedule after school. While the program here was intentionally started slowly, its growth is imminent and inevitable.
I first heard the orchestra last summer, and while they struggled with the music, you had to love the kids and their enthusiasm. They’ve come a long way since then. These kids have already played the Hollywood Bowl, and can now they can say that they’ve made it to Disney Hall, too.
The orchestra members–a sea of red, yellow, green, purple and blue T-shirts—took their places Saturday on the internationally-famed stage before an audience of about 1,000 family, friends and orchestra supporters. Their rehearsal with Dudamel was the closing event in a three-day symposium called “Composing Change: YOLA and the El Sistema Movement.”
Even playing hurt, having pulled a neck muscle earlier in the week, Dudamel exuded an infectious warmth and humor from the moment he stepped onstage. He started out by not just shaking the hand of the young concertmaster, but also patting his head.
Their first piece of business—going over a difficult minor key march from Mahler’s First Symphony—gave way to an enthusiastic rendition of the main theme from “Star Wars” and, finally, to a fun and rousing reading of “Chamambo.”
It was an unforgettable hour for these kids, who represent every ethnic and racial group in L.A. Every hour they spend practicing, they learn the value of hard work and team work. What a life lesson: that by working together and subordinating their own urges, they can produce great music. (Some of our political leaders could stand to learn that lesson, too.) And, from the social policy point of view, every hour the kids spend with the orchestra or practicing at home is an hour they are not susceptible to the vicissitudes of growing up in today’s urban America.
YOLA is just getting started. It’s no El Sistema—yet–but the journey has begun. Dudamel closed the rehearsal by praising the kids for “giving the message and music of our people and our continent. How? Because they have an instrument in their hands.”
And that’s worth a round of applause from all of us in Los Angeles.
Here’s a video look at Youth Orchestra Los Angeles: