By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Will Dudamel be able to change guns for clarinets and violins in Los Angeles?
The answer lies in the work the Dude does out of the limelight, including at a downtown recreation center. It’s at the EXPO Center, for instance, that Dudamel led the youngsters of the YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra on that recent Saturday. The ensemble was created by the Philharmonic and a consortium of supporting groups to promote youth development in underserved communities throughout the city. The umbrella name for the effort is Youth Orchestra L.A. (YOLA).
The model is clearly El Sistemo.
A short video posted on the L.A. Phil Web site shows Dudamel transforming a group of musicians — whose average age is about 12 — from a ragged team of players into a promising, intelligent ensemble. At the end of the video, the kids still haven’t mastered playing in tune. But nobody cares, or should care.
“The YOLA initiative is central to what Gustavo’s doing,” says Borda, Philharmonic president. “On a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10. My commitment — and this institution’s commitment — to Gustavo and his vision of music both as a social and spiritual tool is absolutely key.”
The Philharmonic is not alone. Twenty to 30 youth orchestras exist in Los Angeles, according to Gretchen Nielsen, the Philharmonic’s director of educational initiatives. But they’re all in communities that have a lot of access to the arts, and the financial ability for children to join these mostly “pay-to-play” ensembles.
“That means if I’m a 15-year-old violinist and I want to be in a youth orchestra, typically I will have to pay that organization $200 to $1,000 for a year,” Nielsen says. “That’s because they have their expenses, too — paying a conductor, renting a space, sometimes getting coaches.”
That approach rules out many poor and middle-income pupils, which is to say, most kids in Southern California. The YOLA model flips pay-to-play on its head by buying the kids instruments, giving them free lessons and an ensemble rehearsal every week. And the orchestra is exploring partnerships with about 40 different organizations to pursue the idea of “opening access to more education to more children.”
Even so, that kind of outreach is almost certainly not enough to resurrect classical music. It simply can’t touch enough lives.
Which brings us to the elephant in the green room. The biggest hope for a revival of classical music lies in public schools, where music education is expensive, and thus a frequent target for school budget cuts across the country.
The Venezuelan government supports El Sistema heavily and consistently.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has 885 K-12 schools serving about 688,000 kids, the district’s arts and music budget rose sharply over the past decade, reaching $45.2 million last year. But this year, the number is down by a third, to $31.5 million.
Outside organizations are helping, but they, too, are struggling. Stacy Brightman, Education and Community Programs director at the Los Angeles Opera, says the economic downturn has had a strong impact on its education programs, although general director Plácido Domingo makes them a high priority.
“For the last five years, we had the Arts Community Partnership Network, where arts-education providers would go through a pretty rigorous application process to become a vetted provider for the school district,” Brightman says. “That whole program has been dismantled.”
Marjorie Lindbeck, general manager of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, says that local arts organizations realized years ago “that there was very little arts education in the schools. So we saw it as our obligation to start filling that gap.
“We have a pretty vibrant education project, including a high school choir festival and a 10-week, fifth-grade residency program,” Lindbeck says. “But our outreach programs cost about $300,000, and we have to fundraise for every penny of that.”
The problem in Los Angeles schools is compounded by a patchwork curriculum, which varies from region to region, school to school — even in the best of times.
“When you look at the school system, there is no direct route for instrumental instruction,” Nielsen says. “Right now, if you live in South L.A., you may be lucky to have music in an elementary school, but in middle school, you might not even get music as an elective. Maybe you’ll play an instrument in high school, but by that time you may be hard behind.”
Dudamel and his supporters hope that as he confronts these problems, he will have an edge in one major slice of the community — Latinos. The Philharmonic is reaching out strongly already, promoting Dudamel with ads in Spanish-language media and in heavily Latino areas of Southern California.