Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles Goes to London

Discover Dudamel Orchestra
Discover Dudamel Orchestra.

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"Arts organizations are my favorite fascist structures."

Artist, activist, director, professor, and all-around provocateur Peter Sellars was addressing an audience of music educators. He was only half-joking.

"At the museum, you see only what the curator allows you to see," he said. "In an orchestra, you only hear what the conductor allows you to hear. Nothing else."

The gathering was taking place in the main concert hall at the Barbican Centre in London as part of the symposium "Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century. Sellars' point was that we have an oppressive top-down approach to the way we do the arts in this century. That extends to music education as well. We think we know what version of the arts are the best for all communities and we force our way into the lives of the members of these communities, quietly thinking to ourselves, as Sellars said, "If only we can get these brown children to play Beethoven, they'll be fine." They'll somehow be more human that way. More like us. And it'll make us feel good about ourselves.

Sellars calls this "unvarnished white supremacy."

Discover Dudamel Orchestra.
Discover Dudamel Orchestra.

Just down the hall from where Sellars was speaking, an orchestra was rehearsing. The ensemble -- specifically created for the symposium -- was called the Discover Dudamel Orchestra. The mop-topped Venezuelan conductor was on the podium, making the case for his interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. He said there are as many ways of interpreting a piece of music as there are conductors. "You have to be open to all of them. I'm not telling you my way is the right way."

Most of the musicians in the orchestra were high school age. Most were from London and surrounding environs. But ten of them were from Los Angeles: members of the L.A. Phil's Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) initiative. Many of them have been part of YOLA since the beginning. They performed with Gustavo Dudamel at the Hollywood Bowl on his first concert as music director; they've played with him at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Still, this was a big deal.

It was a big deal because most of these young musicians had never been out of the country or even flown on an airplane. It was a big deal because the process for these 10 members of YOLA to be selected to participate involved multiple essays, auditions, and one-on-one interviews. After all, only 10 kids out of more than 550 in the YOLA program could go.

But more than all that, it was a big deal because it was tangible proof that the social activism side of YOLA -- the part that says music has the power to transform lives -- is working. Gustavo Dudamel is fond of saying, "Music is a fundamental human right." In many ways he is most eloquent on the subject of how music can be a positive force for good in the world. Now, more than five years into YOLA's existence, the young musicians are a living, breathing testament to this assertion.

Miguel, a 16-year-old clarinetist from South L.A., was involved in gang life. But when his younger siblings joined YOLA, he saw an opportunity to get out. Even though he was technically too old for the program in his area, the YOLA teachers found a place for him and now he openly talks about how music "saved my life."

Social justice or "unvarnished white supremacy?" Or both?

Discover Dudamel Orchestra.
Discover Dudamel Orchestra.

With all of its shock-and-awe bravado, I think Peter Sellars' critique has merit. Perhaps the most difficult attributes to recognize in ourselves are our own -isms. Prejudices can stem from everything from privilege to arrogance to ignorance and beyond. Whether it is racism, classism, heterosexism, or elitism the root cause is a lack of curiosity of others. In politics, in religion/spirituality, in business, and even in the arts, all too often we fall in love with our own worldview: My way is the right way and if only I can convince everyone else of this, things are going to be all right.

The arts cannot be a one-way conversation. We cannot use the arts as a tool for cultural proselytization. It cannot be us coming to you so we can fix what we think is wrong with who you are. After all, what right do I have to come into your neighborhood with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears, shove a trumpet in your mouth, plop a Beethoven score onto a music stand, and declare your life enriched? At best, that's drive-by music education. At worst, it's cultural colonialism.

The reason YOLA has been successful so far is that YOLA is doing it differently. Its teachers and administrators have ensconced themselves into the neighborhoods where their students come from. They make themselves available to the kids just about 24 hours a day. Cello teachers don't just teach cello -- they are mentors. They know the kids and their families deeply. They empathize with them in their struggles and celebrate their successes. Above all, it is a relationship.

A relationship that began, and is flourishing, with Gustavo Dudamel at the helm. From his first performance as L.A. Phil music director -- conducting not the L.A. Phil, but YOLA kids at the Hollywood Bowl -- Dudamel has been able to transcend cultural barriers in a way that few others can. Yes, it matters that he's Latino.

Discover Dudamel Orchestra.
Discover Dudamel Orchestra.

The arts can teach us so much, if only we are open. The arts can teach us that, while we are just one of many, who we are and how we express who we are is important. Peter Sellars used the example of the string quartet. He said Enlightenment-era composers were members of the same Masonic lodges as the framers of the United States Constitution. Mozart and Haydn were just as interested in equality as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were. And so these composers invented a new musical ensemble-the string quartet-which demonstrated this concept in art. There are no soloists and if you removed one of the voices, the structure would collapse. As Sellars summed it up, "Equality is not based on sameness. Each one of us has something different to contribute. Equality only exists in our differences."



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