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Gustavo Dudamel gets a special Latino welcome

Perhaps no one was more excited about the L.A. Philharmonic's new music director than the 60 members of the Latino Welcome Committee, which formed shortly after the Venezuelan's appointment.

October 02, 2009|Reed Johnson

Jose Luis Sedano says that his love of classical music began as a child, when his father, a bracero worker in the United States, would bring records home to Mexico City.

"The first music I knew was Chopin's 'Polonaise,' " says the 67-year-old photographer and filmmaker. Later, after he moved with his family to Los Angeles, Sedano worked as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl, where he saw the Beatles perform, then at L.A.'s newly built classical music temple, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This week, Sedano was back at the Bowl with a videocamera making a documentary about the newest and potentially most significant link yet forged between classical music and Southern California Latinos: the appointment of Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Of the many people and institutions hailing the young Venezuelan maestro's arrival this week, none is rolling out a bigger symbolic red carpet than the Latino Welcome Committee, of which Sedano is a member. A volunteer group of about 60 people, including educators, artists, attorneys, civic and business leaders, policy consultants and architects, it formed shortly after Dudamel's five-year appointment was announced in April 2007.

Organizers say that the committee came together more or less organically, out of preexisting connections and outreach programs involving the L.A. Phil and area Latinos. When the orchestra appointed Dudamel, multiple conversations and ideas started flowing between Disney Hall and its Latino patrons and supporters, and the committee jelled from that interchange.

"A lot of us have worked very closely with the L.A. Philharmonic throughout the years," says Angie Castro, a committee member and community press deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. "If you talk to professionals, that's part of our life. We go to LACMA. We go to the Hollywood Bowl."

Tonight, the committee will officially host Dudamel with a reception at the Bowl that will bring together Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Molina and about 400 local civic and cultural leaders, including a smattering of Hollywood celebrities such as Jimmy Smits. A cross-section of musical talent will perform, including two youth orchestras, Jose Rizo's Jazz on the Latin Side All Stars, Jose Hernandez and Mariachi Sol de Mexico and Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad.

Additionally, Dudamel's inaugural concert as music director, "?Bienvenido Gustavo!" at the Bowl on Saturday night, will have a distinctly Latin flavor, with performances by the young Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos with Taj Mahal and the musical troupe Los Cenzontles. Dudamel will conduct the YOLA Expo Centre Youth Orchestra in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and close the evening by leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Dudamel won't be the first Latino to fill a top position in Southern California's classical music world. Jorge Mester, the longtime music director of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, was born in Mexico City and has served as music director of the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra. Placido Domingo, the Spanish-born superstar tenor who runs Los Angeles Opera, was raised partly in Mexico and has strong ties to Latin America.

But the 28-year-old conductor's youth and charismatic presence present the philharmonic and its Latino community partners with an unusual opportunity. Historically, the area's largest cultural entities have had only sporadic success in attracting substantial Latino audiences, in a region where roughly half the population is now of Hispanic descent. Often in the past, attendance would surge for a Latino-themed play opening or art exhibition, then gradually slip back.

"All of the major cultural organizations in L.A. have struggled with this issue through the years," says John Echeveste, a committee member and a partner at VPE Public Relations. "The difference here, I think, is that Gustavo is here for five years, so we have a real, live person here who can go out and tell the story."

Erick Serrato, an L.A.-based consultant, says that one of the formative influences on the Latino Welcome Committee occurred some time ago at a Walt Disney Concert Hall performance that included mariachi musicians.

"A lot of us showed up to the L.A. Phil and a lot of people said, 'Oh, wow, look at all these brown people here!' " Serrato recalls. "I think for a lot of us that was an epiphany. It was an instant where we felt suddenly the music felt very accessible to us, the venue felt very accessible to us. And how do we keep this together?"

The committee aims to continue collaborating with the L.A. Phil in reaching out to local Latinos during Dudamel's inaugural season and beyond, and in promoting greater access to the arts. Those efforts will include a number of youth-centric initiatives, such as the recently formed YOLA, which was inspired by El Sistema, the Venezuelan national music education program that nurtured Dudamel.

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