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Instruments of Change

CLEMENCY BURTON-HILL talks to Gustavo Dudamel, the dynamic music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, about his success in bringing El Sistema to the U.S.

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Dudamel at the opening of the 2012 London Festival, with children from the "Big Noise" orchestra, one of the groups set up by Sistema Scotland in the district of Raploch in the Scots city of Stirling
© Getty Images/Jeff J. Mitchell 2013
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© Vern Evans Photo 2013
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Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, in Caracas, 2012
© Ariana Cubillos/AP/Corbis 2013

High above New York City's Lincoln Center Plaza, on a glittering and crisp winter's night, Gustavo Dudamel is collecting Musical America's Musician of the Year award. The ceremony at the Rose Building is a family affair. His wife and baby son are here. His mother and grandmother are here. His mentor José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, is here. And his "brothers" are here, too, in the form of a young Venezuelan brass ensemble that Dudamel introduces with touchingly obvious pride.

The room seems to shimmer with the expectation that envelops Dudamel like a force field. It is four seasons since this exceptionally charismatic young Latin American took the helm at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the luminaries gathered for the ceremony are by now well accustomed to thinking of him as some kind of messiah — the ultimate musician, perhaps, predestined to be here, collecting yet another honor, single-handedly rescuing the future of the art form for classical audiences everywhere. 

So when the newly anointed Musician of the Year takes to the podium and begins to speak, the implications of his words take a moment to be fully absorbed. "I am often asked, did I decide to be a musician, or did music take me?" Dudamel reveals. "But it's not the music that chose me, or I the music. Without El Sistema, it was impossible to happen. Impossible. It is only that El Sistema gave me the opportunity to create a life through music." Even as he graciously accepts this latest accolade, Dudamel issues a gentle but firm clarification. "All of the prizes, the recognition, I thank you so much for all of that. But a conductor without an orchestra is nothing, you know. So this is not about me. I only represent this community — of children dreaming and building a life through music." 

This is no false modesty: for all the attendant glamour of his life as one of the most in-demand and celebrated artists of our time, Gustavo Dudamel really means it. His notion that music education can fundamentally change society, and that all children deserve "access to beauty," drives everything he does. "It is his creative internal core, his DNA," suggests Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the L.A. Philharmonic. Borda describes her first experience watching Dudamel with El Sistema — years before she had lured him to be the L.A. Phil's music director — as "transformational." "When I left Caracas that first time," she confides, "I thought, 'Well, I may not be able to persuade Gustavo Dudamel to come to Los Angeles, but no matter what, I will bring this back. We will do this in America…."

More than two thousand miles away from the bright lights of Lincoln Center, back in Dudamel's adopted American city, the ambitious El Sistema-inspired music-education initiative that he and Borda did indeed launch is gathering pace. One of three international programs to which he has officially committed his name, time and energy (the others are in Raploch, Scotland, and Hammarkullen, Sweden), Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) is by far the most visible manifestation outside of Venezuela of Dudamel's belief that "the most important thing is not to forget your beginnings, your basis, your family." It is also based on his unshakable conviction that a classical-music education should be an inalienable right for every child, regardless of demographics, background or race — here in America, too, just as it is in Venezuela, where, since founding El Sistema in 1975, Maestro Abreu has succeeded in making universal free music education a transformative tenet of social policy. "You know, we have to rebuild our vision of life, we have to work in another way, and that is El Sistema," Dudamel says at a post-concert interview in his office at the Walt Disney Hall on South Grand Avenue. "And here in L.A., it's really coming now. We're really building something with YOLA." He describes the process as "a responsibility, but a beautiful responsibility." 

Abreu famously began with eleven kids in a Caracas garage. YOLA began with eighty kids, all from local underserved neighborhoods. At its two centers, the Philharmonic and its community partners now provide free instruments, intensive music training and academic support to more than 550 students in a program that was established even before Dudamel had taken the podium as music director in L.A. By this fall, that number will rise above 600; both centers have waiting lists running into the hundreds, and Borda admits that demand, always rising, cannot currently be met. Dudamel, meanwhile, is more than just a compelling figurehead: whenever he is in town, he visits YOLA, conducting rehearsals and concerts, talking to students, encouraging them, cracking jokes. It clearly matters to him that the students understand he is invested in their futures, and that he believes in them, not just as young musicians but as individuals, filled with promise and potential. 

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Rehearsing in 2011 with members of the YOLA EXPO Center Chamber Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall
© Ringo H. W. Chiu/AP/Corbis 2013

It's a humid weekday afternoon, and I'm visiting the YOLA at HOLA (Heart of Los Angeles) center in the disadvantaged Ramparts district. Pouring out of every classroom is the unmistakably joyous, if chaotic, cacophony of young children learning music — a brass ensemble, a woodwinds class, a strings sectional. The program also has a choral component. I'm struck by how much it resembles the local music schools (known as nucleos) that I saw in Caracas, such as La Rinconada, where, like almost half a million children around Venezuela, hundreds of children learn music after their normal school day, every single day. "Gustavo's very funny — he makes music very fun," says Raymond Chavez, a clarinetist who's been a student at YOLA for two years. Raymond, now fifteen, is very earnest, and he's smiling broadly as he walks me down the noisy corridor. "Music has always been a part of him, and when he talks about music, it's like we've known each other for a long time — there's a connection."

Raymond, I subsequently discover, hails from a tough background. Like so many kids in this neighborhood, he had been skipping school and running with a local gang before he enrolled at YOLA. When I catch up with him a little later, he tells me he now plans to apply to the Ramón C. Cortines High School, a prestigious specialist performing-arts high school. "Music has given me a different perspective of how I view myself and the world around me," he says. "YOLA has made me realize that I could be part of something greater in life." 

Raymond tells me he hopes to attend college one day. If he gets there, he will be the first person in his entire family to do so. And after college? "I want to be a professional musician like Gustavo," he replies patiently, stopping short of punctuating this statement with "Duh." Recalling the time he had the opportunity to perform and rehearse with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, he admits, "It was life-changing for me. It made me realize that you do not have to be from the greatest community to become an inspiring musician. I saw how in Venezuela, young musicians wanted their communities to change for the better and then decided to be that change." And then, politely excusing himself, off he skips to his next clarinet lesson. (Raymond has since been accepted by the Ramón C. Cortines High School, where he is now flourishing.)

Dudamel describes the Raymond effect as "the circle" — how positive change ripples out from the individual child through friends, family and wider society. "You see how the child changes when they learn like this, and then you cannot even imagine how the family around them change too," he tells me. Tellingly, El Sistema in Venezuela is funded by the social services department, not the culture purse, and according to purely financial analysis, the investment of each dollar returns at least $1.68 in savings made elsewhere across the budget, but the emotional metrics are unquantifiable. "The families, they come to the concerts, they enjoy the music, and all the time they learn more about how to listen to classical music," he says. "They feel that music is part of them, and now they own the right to enjoy and to have classical music. And that is a beautiful thing that will help to change society."

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With the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl, 2009
© Mathew Imaging 2013

Dudamel's insistence on the right of all people to have classical music in their lives was a statement of intent made riotously clear when he first put YOLA kids prominently onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009 during his inaugural concert as music director of the L.A. Phil. In the intervening years, that clarion call has resonated ever louder. In September, YOLA players will take to the stage of the Walt Disney Hall alongside members of the L.A. Phil, in a side-by-side concert. Later in the season, "Tchaikovsky Fest" builds on the monumental "Mahler Project" of 2012, an unprecedented international jamboree of performance, education and community engagement across cultures and continents. Combining the forces of the L.A. Phil and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the music of the Russian master will be explored not just through major performances of the symphonies and tone poems but with a program of community and education events that place the students of YOLA at their very heart.

Also integral to the festival will be the latest incarnation of Take a Stand, the national initiative forged between the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bard College in New York and its Longy School of Music, which supports social change through music and "seeks," Borda says, "to change the face of music education in the United States." Recognizing that the intensely group-focused El Sistema approach diverges from the individualistic pedagogical methods traditionally employed in the U.S., Take a Stand has launched a Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program to ensure sustainability. In training teachers like this, it reflects what Dudamel calls "the pyramid" of El Sistema — how, almost as soon as a child can play, he is immediately encouraged and enabled to teach those below, thereby vibrantly communicating a message that teachers are also active musicians, people who play.

Since Dudamel launched YOLA, the spread of analogous educational initiatives across America has been nothing short of exponential. From Seattle to South Carolina, Massachusetts to Miami, there are now close to seventy such music-education programs around the country; it is hard to keep track of the exact number of children involved. The Sistema-inspired Miami Music Project, for example — currently serving more than 300 young people aged between five and eighteen in two chapters — has seen almost one thousand percent growth in two years. "This is spreading like wildfire — it seems to have its own wild momentum," says Jamie Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein, who is involved with El Sistema in Venezuela and has been making a documentary about a Sistema-inspired West Philadelphia music-education project for more than three years. "And in this country, we're in our infancy," Borda adds, wryly. "Look at what it's achieved in Venezuela! Here, it's early days, but in YOLA orchestras, 95 percent of the kids return, there are huge waitlists. It's early to say what this will be, but it is something that has inflamed and caught people's imagination." Later, she tells me, "I see it as potentially: 'Could this be the Trojan horse for classical music? Could we finally ignite and capture people's hearts and imaginations, move them forward?'" 

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With the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at the BBC Proms, 2011
© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis 2013

Amid the excited clamor of revolution, there are inevitably notes of caution being sounded. America is not Venezuela; in such a different political climate, evidently a top-down, one-size-fits-all, Sistema-style music-education program cannot be imposed on American communities, which may be as unrecognizable to each other as they are to Venezuelan villages. Patience, vigilance and flexibility will clearly be vital ingredients for any long-term change to take hold. "It will not be instant," warns Dudamel himself. "It's not easy. Remember, when Maestro Abreu started this project, for the people in Venezuela he was a crazy guy. How Venezuelan children can play music when they are poor? How music can change people? Hmm. Well, here we are forty years later, and you see what he got — the attention of the world, and most importantly, that music in Venezuela is now a right in the constitution of the country. But it is very hard work."

Bernstein agrees. "It's not a panacea. It's not going to cure every ill. But it is going to help thousands and thousands of kids, and their families, and their communities. And you know what else it's going to do? What if, let's say, from all these thousands of kids in El Sistema programs in the U.S., from each nucleo two of them go to conservatories, which is a very modest estimate. And let's say one from each conservatory joins an orchestra. That is still changing a lot of American orchestras. Over time, eventually — literally and figuratively — the complexion of American orchestras will be transformed, which in turn will change their audience and increase their audience. So these nucleos are creating this vast new audience of young people who care about classical music, who know a bit about it, who recognize the tunes because someone in their family plays it. In Venezuela, everybody has a relative in El Sistema, everyone is connected to it, and the audiences there are gigantic. We're worried about the decline of classical music in this country? Twenty years from now, we might have the biggest classical-music audience we've ever had!"

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© Jennifer Taylor 2013

"All of this is happening — people adding more ideas. They have the idea or the vision to be part of all of this," Dudamel nods, gratified that, while his relentless international conducting commitments mean he cannot possibly be involved with every program that would proudly adopt his or the El Sistema name, the raucous revolution in American music education shows no sign of abating. "They are the new generation — not only of musicians, but an audience."

It seems an obvious question, but one worth asking: why, ultimately, does the growth of that audience matter? "Why music?" he smiles. "Because music is magic — it's special. We cannot see music, but we can feel it. And when you have an instrument, and you play your first note, you feel that, together with the hundreds that are next to you, or the thousands, or the hundreds of thousands, you can build your world, your own world. You can build a better world." spacer

CLEMENCY BURTON-HILL is a British arts and music writer and a host on WQXR, BBCTV and BBC Radio 3.

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2