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Gustavo Dudamel strikes the right chord in L.A.

As the young L.A. Philharmonic conductor takes up the baton, he stands as an exciting example of how the city can nurture and develop its own musical prodigies.

October 08, 2009

Eighteen thousand people from every corner of the city, of every ethnicity, race and income, converged at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend to welcome Gustavo Dudamel, the new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and to bask in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Thousands more who either couldn't afford tickets to Walt Disney Concert Hall or found them to be sold out will be watching tonight on televised simulcast as Dudamel kicks off his first season with the orchestra. Part of the craze is inspired by Dudamel himself -- his manner, his easy rapport with audiences and his talent. But something else is at work here too. Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil's visionary president, understood two things in bringing the exuberant 28-year-old Venezuelan to Los Angeles: the city's widespread hunger for music, and how Dudamel could help sate it.

The goal isn't merely to stoke a love affair between the city and the conductor but also to use the excitement he generates to nurture and develop our own musical prodigies. Dudamel is the most famous product of Venezuela's phenomenally successful orchestra system, called simply El Sistema. It began in a garage 35 years ago, and more than 250,000 children from some of the country's poorest slums and neighborhoods have since passed through the program -- many going on to become professional musicians. Although the instruments are free, the program requires discipline and commitment: Children practice every day between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. and rehearse again on Saturdays.

Los Angeles does have youth orchestras; there are at least 13 in the city. But they are mostly for high-school-aged students and mostly in affluent areas. That's the equation Dudamel and his new colleagues hope to alter, and the effort is already underway. The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which the L.A. Phil established two years ago, about the same time Dudamel was hired, is modeled on El Sistema; Borda flew to Caracas to see how it was done. The orchestra partnered with the Expo Center in Exposition Park and started with 100 students ages 7 to 16. Today it has 200 students, all of whom receive free instruments, after-school lessons and orchestra experience. If all goes as planned, the program will grow each year. The orchestra now has a permanent conductor, but "Mr. Gustavo," as the kids call him, also visits rehearsals.

Tonight's inaugural L.A. Phil concert will likely generate more superlatives from a city sorely in need of inspiration. But here's hoping the maestro's impact extends far beyond the swirling steel of Disney Hall. He has said music education is to be a cornerstone of his tenure here, and years from now, when the curtain falls on his time at the podium, one measure of his success will be whether the worldwide search for his replacement begins at home.

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