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Dudamel: The Great Brown Hope 

L.A. Phil conductor must inspire Latinos, if it's not too late

Wednesday, Sep 23 2009
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Aside from their musical brilliance, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel would, on the surface, seem to have little in common. Salonen is the cool, cerebral Finn; Dudamel the hot, passionate Venezolano. But what they share is the experience of taking the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at outrageously young ages — and the challenges that come with the prestigious appointment.

Salonen was 34 when he took over in 1992; Dudamel is — good grief — 28 as he grabs the Philharmonic’s baton. They were both shrewd choices, perfect fits for the culture of youth that has long defined Los Angeles. But the Philharmonic is betting on Dudamel to do more than lower the average age of the orchestra’s patrons — a big enough challenge in itself.

The Dude is the Great Brown Hope in the biggest, brownest metropolis north of Mexico City. The question is whether Dudamel can turn L.A.’s Latino population — particularly its vast middle class — into symphonygoers. There are already signs of a new approach: The city is blanketed with bilingual billboards and bus-bench ads, and the Philharmonic’s Web site now features a tour of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Spanish.

click to enlarge MARCO ANELLI
  • Marco Anelli

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“Our goal is to engage [Latinos] and create awareness of the L.A. Philharmonic,” says Shana Mathur, vice president of marketing and communications for the orchestra. “Gustavo is the greatest vehicle for developing that relationship. Even if he wasn’t here, as an organization we would have to come to this point. Any arts organization, regardless of programming content, needs to start thinking of this population — how we address and talk to Latinos.”

To that end, the Phil hired alPunto, an Orange County–based Hispanic marketing firm, to help shape the organization’s new approach. The efforts include Spanish-language telemarketing and a bilingual brochure that was mailed to 50,000 Spanish-surnamed households that have disposable income. And then there’s that public-ad campaign, featuring a dramatic image of Dudamel in action and a series of bold one-word messages in Spanish, such as “Pasión.” (One patron wrote to the Philharmonic to point out that it had misspelled “Passion.”)

But all this begs the question: Why is the Los Angeles Philharmonic such a Juanny-come-lately in this regard? Why did it take the appointment of its first Latino music director to prompt such a push in the longtime capital of Mex-America?

“You can’t go to people who have been completely ignored, simply invite them and suddenly expect them to be there,” says Sonia Marie De Leon de Vega, founder and director of the L.A.-based Santa Cecilia Orchestra.

De Leon de Vega, born in Texas but raised in Los Angeles from age 4, started the organization in 1992. She touts it as the country’s only orchestra whose specific mission is to target the Latino community. It does so through a concert series that De Leon de Vega says reaches 20,000 children and their families, and an education program that provides free violin lessons to 250 elementary and junior high students.

“We have six sold-out concerts every year and the audience is 90 percent Latino,” she says. “It’s a population that’s been ignored by the arts.”

So the Philharmonic finds itself playing catch-up on several fronts, but it has revamped its education program by launching the Young Musicians Initiative, designed — according to the Philharmonic’s Web site — to “create a network of community-based youth orchestras in underserved areas of L.A. County.” The initiative is inspired by and modeled after El Sistema, the acclaimed Venezuelan program that produced Dudamel.

But, again, L.A. has had grossly “underserved areas” for a long time — particularly in Latino neighborhoods. Had the orchestra’s leadership possessed the vision to start such a program 20 years ago, it could have eased the pain of arts cuts in schools for an entire generation — and cultivated a community that would today be inclined to attend Philharmonic concerts.

“There are few minorities in orchestras because there is no music in the schools,” De Leon de Vega says. “If you expose kids to culture at a young age, they’ll like it when they’re older.”

The Latino population is younger than the general population, so if the Philharmonic can attract its members, it will address another problem — the ongoing graying of the classical-music audience. Even under the youthful, dynamic Salonen, the orchestra’s audience did not get dramatically younger.

“Our season subscribers have stayed the same age,” Mathur says. “But our Casual Fridays series brings down the average age. And subscribers to our Create Your Own series are quite a bit younger — 55 or so. And when you look at single-ticket buyers, they’re younger. And the Latino target audience is younger. There may be a different point in Latino patrons’ standpoint where they will be ready to become subscribers at a younger age.”

But, as De Leon de Vega points out: “At a time when orchestras are dying off, is it too little, too late?”

Mathur says season-subscription renewals are slightly down but that single-event sales are way up. That could be related to the economy but may also be a reflection of younger patrons who are more inclined to pick and choose. The Philharmonic has been trying in recent years to attract the blue-jean crowd to Walt Disney Concert Hall through orchestral collaborations with the likes of Grizzly Bear and M83. (The orchestra has backed many other rock/pop acts at the Hollywood Bowl, but that’s not exactly a concert-hall experience.) While young, acculturated Latinos are also fans of those hip artists, they may be more frequently drawn to Disney Hall by artists and composers who look like them and share their background. For example, why not pair young singer-songwriters such as Andrea Echeverri and Juana Molina and veteran artists such as Caetano Veloso and Fito Paez with the orchestra in programs that mix classical and pop music?

“There are a lot of professional, accomplished Latinos who have had culture in their life and will be attracted to a young Latino conductor,” De Leon de Vega says. “He will definitely change the Philharmonic into a more open, more welcoming organization.”

The orchestra just has to avoid patronizing its potential Latino audience. But there are smart folks working there. Smart enough to recognize that there are a lot of sophisticated brown folks ’round these parts — and El Dude just could be their Pied Piper.

Oscar Garza is the former editor in chief of Tu Ciudad Los Angeles magazine.

Click here for “L.A. Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel.”

Reach the writer at oggarza@sbcglobal.net

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