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Youth orchestra opens up new world for participants

What began as a free five-week program in June has continued. Many of the young musicians had never picked up an instrument or heard classical music.

December 24, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
  • Music director Michael Hudson gestures to Mayte Castro, 9, to take a bow after her solo during a Boyle Heights Youth Orchestra rehearsal at the Breed Street Shul.
Music director Michael Hudson gestures to Mayte Castro, 9, to take a bow… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

Dozens of young children, some wearing shirts with their Catholic school emblem, and with last names like Gonzalez, Mendieta and Santaolalla harmonized to the chorus of the "Dreidel Song."

"Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay," they sang. "And when it's dry and ready, with dreidel I shall play."

The Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra filled the Breed Street Shul with new life as it rehearsed for its first holiday concert.

The concert, like the orchestra itself, is evidence of the community's ever-evolving history.

The Jewish storefronts on what was once Brooklyn Avenue are now occupied mostly by Latino entrepreneurs on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The large brick synagogue used to be a beacon for many in the community. It remains boarded up but a smaller adjacent one recently reopened after the Breed Street Shul Project renovated it.

"This is exactly what our mission is," said the project's executive director, Sherry Marks. To make the synagogue "an integral part of the community where it sits and not lose the Jewish history nor the flavor of the community."

The youth orchestra hopes to add a little extra sazón, or seasoning, to the mix.

Taking a cue from Gustavo Dudamel's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, two music instructors decided to emulate the Los Angeles Philharmonic musicdirector's dream.

Dudamel's program aims to provide free instruments and intensive musical training to children from underserved neighborhoods, said Michael Hudson, the musical director of the Boyle Heights Community Youth Orchestra. "But we brought it to Boyle Heights because there are so many pockets of need for youth orchestras and there aren't any in the East L.A. area."

Hudson teamed up with Suzanne Gindin, a music teacher at Roosevelt High School, and decided to launch a free five-week youth orchestra program in June. Gindin also gives the children vocal instruction.

Xochitl Ramos saw a flier for the program at Kipp Raices Academy, an elementary charter school attended by her son and daughter, and was instantly intrigued.

"I grew up in Boyle Heights," she said. "I know this is rare."

Hudson and Gindin quickly filled their orchestra with more than 60 students, many of whom had never picked up an instrument or heard classical music. The students went on a field trip to see Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl during that time. Many had never been to that part of town.

"We're within a stone's throw," Hudson said. "They don't know the cultural treasures we have here. The opera, music hall and museums. It's just across the river."

He said the orchestra could have a wider significance for these children.

"It's not just a music program, it's a social change program," he said. "You create music and equality and greater opportunities for these children."

As the summer came to an end, he and Gindin saw an unceasing demand for their instruction and they decided to continue the program throughout the year free of charge.

At the holiday concert rehearsal, Ramos smiled as her daughter Julia Perez-Pacheco shook a maraca to Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad."

The 8-year-old took to the violin immediately and hates being late to orchestra practice, Ramos said, though 7-year-old Esteban stopped playing the trumpet once school started to focus on his homework.

"I look for positive things to get them involved in so they won't be influenced to do negative things," Ramos said.

Daisy Mendieta, like Julia, found her love for the violin.

The soft-spoken 7-year-old didn't join the orchestra until August but has made up for her lost time.

"Even after a long day at school, she still gets excited about coming to practice," her mother, Lucina, said in Spanish.

Some of the students' pint-sized instruments came from a grant Hudson received from Latino Arts L.A. years ago, and others are borrowed. The orchestra has applied for nonprofit status, but both musical directors say they didn't want to wait to start the program.

"There was no time to waste," Hudson said. "Our kids need music now."

Still, as the free program continues, Gindin said she starts to worry about the size and condition of some of the instruments.

But Hudson, who occasionally leaves a tip jar out for his own bus fare, is optimistic.

"Where there's a dream, money will follow."

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