December 10, 2008 / 1:45 PM / 10 years ago

L.A. youth learn of music, life with young maestro

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As Gustavo Dudamel tried to coax more force from children playing Beethoven, the young Venezuelan conductor resorted to an original tool: his hair.

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel teaches children at Youth Orchestra L.A., the Los Angeles Philharmonic's effort to establish youth orchestras in underserved areas of the city, in Los Angeles, December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

“Do you remember the hair movement? It is very important!” Dudamel told the kids from rough South Los Angeles, his head of thick, springy curls bobbing to make the point.

Who knew a classical music rehearsal could be so much fun?

Well, anyone who has worked with the 27-year-old Dudamel. He is the toast of the classical music world and is preparing to take over one of the world’s top orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 2009. A big part of his new job will be working with inner-city youth.

With Dudamel, the LA Phil not only gets a highly acclaimed conductor. It also gets the experience of someone raised in “El Sistema” — Venezuela’s much lauded music school network that has helped thousands of children steer clear of violence and drugs in underprivileged neighborhoods.

As the LA Phil began to court Dudamel two years ago, President Deborah Borda went to Venezuela to study El Sistema and see how it could be applied in the second largest U.S. city, a place of great wealth and also rampant gang violence.

Even though El Sistema now has 300,000 children in its schools, Borda said she was encouraged to start small. The LA Phil plans to create three to five youth orchestras under Dudamel’s tutelage.

The maiden project, the EXPO Center Youth Orchestra, met him last weekend for the first time. The mostly African American and Hispanic children have signed a contract to take care of their free instruments, practice, and attend lessons.

Together, they tackled Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” and the kids’ favorite, “Can Can” by Offenbach. Eager to please the maestro, the children played “Venezuela,” a difficult piece.

Despite some off-notes and faltering tempos, Dudamel was encouraging throughout, pushing the LA Phil’s benefactors in the room to tears. One was heard saying: “He’s the Obama of music,” referring to the young U.S. president-elect.


“You remind me of my beginnings when I was playing in the orchestra in my town, a small orchestra in a small place, trying to ... be a wonderful musician,” Dudamel told the inner-city children at the end of rehearsal.

Dudamel started playing violin at 10, joined El Sistema and by 18 was Venezuela’s national youth orchestra director. In 2004, he made international headlines by winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize.

Dudamel believes that playing in an youth orchestra makes better citizens of its members, because it forces them to work with up to 100 musicians and be a part of a community.

“Music is a tool of social change, like it has been in Venezuela,” he told reporters. “In music, there is no room for racial and class differences. The only thing that exists is a goal, to make music together and enjoy.”

Not all the kids will become professional musicians, but Dudamel said an important by-product is building a new audience for classical music, long associated with well-heeled elites.

To make the point, he invited the kids to rehearse next time at the LA Phil’s modern venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles.

As it turns out, Dudamel is the same fun man with the kids as he is with the veteran musicians at Walt Disney.

Borda said a LA Phil violinist watching Dudamel with the youth orchestra commented: “He rehearses it exactly as he rehearses the Los Angeles Philharmonic.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eric Walsh

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