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Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel raises funds for youth orchestra

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel raises funds for youth orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducts Longy’s Side by Side Orchestra in an open rehearsal at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. (Photo: David Green)

At its fundraiser for programs to advance social change through music, the Cambridge-based Longy School of Music at Bard College chose to present an open rehearsal rather than a polished production.

Yet the Saturday event at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium was as stirring as a formal concert.

Conducting the rehearsal was Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and an alumnus of Venezuela’s national youth orchestra movement, El Sistema — the program that inspires Longy’s initiatives to educate musicians as agents of change.

Economist and composer José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema in 1975, envisioning music as a vehicle for personal and community transformation. Reaching the country’s poorest neighborhoods, El Sistema today serves more than 300,000 children a year through its network of local orchestras. Each is a micro-community that nurtures life skills in children from ages 6 to 18 while immersing them in the joy, discipline and grandeur of ensemble musicianship.

As he conducted Longy’s Side by Side Orchestra, composed of local children and their Longy mentors, Dudamel demonstrated the sense of play, as well as respect, for both children and music that are integral to El Sistema.

Wearing black Side by Side T-shirts and black pants, the 60-strong ensemble featured 30 children from El Sistema-inspired programs. These young musicians came from Conservatory Lab Charter School, Josiah Quincy School, Margarita Muniz Academy, Boston String Academy, El Sistema Somerville and Kids 4 Harmony, a program in Pittsfield, Mass.

Fanned out before Dudamel on stage in symphony formation, the well-trained children shared music stands with graduate students from the Longy Conservatory Orchestra and a cohort of 10 visiting musicians from Youth Orchestra LA, an El Sistema program of the LA Philharmonic.

Buzzing with joyful anticipation, the packed hall included tots with their parents, boisterous teenagers, grey-haired academics, and leaders of Boston musical institutions.

After introductions by Karen Zorn, Longy’s president, and Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the LA Philharmonic, maestro Dudamel strode to the podium and doffed his jacket. In a short-sleeved black shirt and navy pants, he started by joking a bit. “What do you want to play?” he asked. “I will follow you.”

In fact, the children had prepared for months to tackle passages from two 19th century masterpieces, “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2” by George Bizet; and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64.”. The latter was one of the works that Dudamel would conduct the next day with the LA Philharmonic for its Celebrity Series of Boston performance at Symphony Hall.

Enveloping the young musicians in his warmth and charisma, Dudamel guided them in bringing the scores to life. In a series of starts and stops, he let them perform a passage and then, after coaching, let them try it again.

Using his arms and hands rather than a baton, he led the orchestra through the opening strains of a dramatic and forceful passage. They played it with the gusto of a parade band while also conveying a hint of its yearning undertone.

Dudamel interrupted the music, urging the players to communicate the “two characters” of the Bizet piece, which combines a triumphant royal procession with the tender outreach of a hopeful young lover. Speaking of the composer, Dudamel said, “He’s a Frenchman. It is elegant.”

“Don’t push the tempo — it is opulent, never heavy,” he added. Stretching his arms in emphasis, he told them that the procession moves with “long legs.”

Overhead, a video projection showed the audience what the children saw, Dudamel’s dimpled, smiling face, framed by black ringlets, and a frontal view of his constantly moving arms, torso and hands.

Playful and serious at the same time, Dudamel drew out the humanity of both the music and the young players, encouraging them to strive for precise emotional expression.

Nudging the musicians to put themselves into the story and its changing emotions, he voiced a litany of phrases, as if the music spoke for the lover. “No. Yes.” “Please don’t leave me.”

Dudamel sang and whistled a few notes to highlight a melodic vein. Gesturing as if he was soaping up, Dudamel told the musicians that he sings as he takes a shower and also when he conducts, to get at “the sound that I want.”

After the players started, he again halted them, saying, “We think of the winds having to breathe. But strings have to breathe too.”

As the orchestra reached the concluding passage, Dudamel reminded them that the composer’s score described it as “molto maestoso” (very majestic). Rising to the challenge, the ensemble delivered an exultant finale, earning a standing ovation from the jubilant audience.

While showcasing the Side by Side Orchestra, the event also promoted Longy’s joint program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to enhance teaching in El Sistema-inspired programs. Entitled Take a Stand, the program has as its centerpiece Longy’s new Master of Arts in Teaching in Music program, based in Los Angeles. Students will work with Youth Orchestra LA and faculty who have come up through El Sistema in Venezuela, including members of the LA Philharmonic.

With this partnership, Los Angeles and Boston become dual hubs of the El Sistema movement in the U.S., building on pioneering initiatives of New England Conservatory. In 1999, NEC developed the El Sistema curriculum at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, and a decade later established fellowships to train teachers in El Sistema principles. A guiding figure in these ventures was retired NEC dean Mark Churchill, who now heads El Sistema USA, a support network for the nationwide El Sistema movement.

Following the rehearsal, Dudamel, just 33, was presented with Longy’s Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society. Joining Zorn for the presentation was Jamie Bernstein, the daughter of iconic composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Speaking of her father’s passion to bring classical music to underprivileged children, Bernstein said that if he were alive today, El Sistema “would have been the next thing for him.”

Holding up the plaque, Dudamel seized the moment to honor El Sistema. “I come from a huge family of musicians who make the world a better place through music,” said Dudamel. “I accept this award in the name of all the children and teachers, families and parents. I did not create the program. I am a son. Being part of this family is the best gift I could receive from life and from God.”

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