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L.A. Phil makes an impression with 'Discover Dudamel'

Critic's Notebook: Gustavo Dudamel's L.A. Philharmonic and musicians from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles wow a London audience in a stop at the Barbican.

March 19, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • L.A. Phil's Gustavo Dudamel rehearses with a mixed-ability orchestra of 100 young people from across London and Los Angeles in Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture "Romeo and Juliet."
L.A. Phil's Gustavo Dudamel rehearses with a mixed-ability orchestra… (Susana Sanroman )

LONDON — Downing a lunch of fish and chips just before going onstage Friday at the Barbican Centre here, 10 upbeat teenagers from Los Angeles acted, like teens everywhere, as if they were casually taking it all in.

They weren't.

For most of these high-schoolers, this was their first trip away from home, and it didn't take long for them to admit that everything, from flying in an airplane to witnessing a snowstorm just after they landed last Wednesday, was a gleeful new experience. But that was just the lead-up.

These musicians from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, chosen from 550 L.A. students in the YOLA program, were about to go onstage with mostly more seasoned British players, ages 10 to 22, from the Guildhall School of Music and around London for a high-profile appearance led by Gustavo Dudamel.

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"You cannot play only the notes, you have to play the content," Dudamel first told the students after a nervous, unimaginative and ill-tuned first run-through of Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture "Romeo and Juliet."

They caught on so quickly that even a listener long familiar with Dudamel's vividly personal approach could still be astonished by the way he transformed this ad-hoc orchestra's playing and, more important, its intensity in a single rehearsal.

Emotions, indeed, ran so high that by the end of the "Discover Dudamel" 90-minute public rehearsal Friday afternoon — the conclusion of the three-day "Future Play" symposium jointly sponsored by the L.A. Phil and the Barbican — there were few dry eyes in the theater after the encore of "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. And that wasn't just the audience.

The presumably cosmopolitan Guildhall musicians couldn't hang on to their typical British reserve for long. Several looked as though they were about to lose it. They all wore T-shirts that read, by this point redundantly, "Discover Dudamel."

"Music brought us together," said Rodas Hailu, a violinist from Downey High School. That, and a little help from friends in high places and a conductor who all but cast a spell on dutiful students, turning them into believable artists in front of an audience's incredulous eyes — and ears.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is taking its show, and a very big show it is, on the road. Friday's packed public rehearsal, which received substantial media attention in the British capital, was one of the opening events for what is surely the most audacious orchestra tour of modern times.

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Rather than simply play concerts in music capitals, as most touring orchestras do, the L.A. Phil — described by a BBC radio announcer last week "as famous now and as renowned as the Vienna Philharmonic" — hopes, however briefly, to export as much of its visionary brand as it can get away with. It doesn't hurt of course that its music director is a huge draw.

It was no coincidence that Dudamel's passion for music education would bring 10 YOLA students to London. But the challenge the L.A. Phil posed in London at the "Future Play" symposium was, as articulated by director Peter Sellars in his untempered keynote speech, authentically audacious. "We need to address things that have never been done well in human history," namely the creation of genuine democracy, he asserted. To do that, Sellars insisted, these institutions must overcome their inherent "nightmarish fascist structures," and stop force-feeding singular cultural points of view and offer a global perspective.

At the Barbican residency, which ended Sunday, and beyond, the L.A. Phil includes three very different performances: a trademark Green Umbrella new music concert, the European premiere of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" with Sellars' staging, and an orchestra concert of works by Claude Vivier, Debussy and Stravinsky — all of which were hot tickets in this town spoiled by musical choices.

"The Other Mary" production and the orchestra program are now traveling to Lucerne, Switzerland; Paris; and New York. This requires an enormous orchestra, 15 tons of luggage (the instruments and sets) and hiring three big-rigs to transport them over the snowy Alps on a tight schedule. Not to mention that the orchestra is bringing 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Plus the kids from YOLA, along with the music staff needed to supervise them. And no matter how impressive this massive tour may turn out to be, it's hard to imagine that anything will make a more lasting impression than "Discover Dudamel" did.

The YOLA contingent represents a small step toward that utopian prospect of a society changed through music. Most began as children in this education program started by the L.A. Phil five years ago and modeled after the El Sistema music education program that produced Dudamel in his native Venezuela.

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