Gustavo Dudamel returns to the stage. This is his second encore . It’s opening night for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The orchestra is based in California. The crowd spots the conductor . The volume inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall surges. Dudamel steps to the podium. He lifts his arms. The orchestra explodes. They start to play the opening of the Star Wars theme. At the end, the audience leaps to its feet. It’s what you’d expect to see at a Taylor Swift concert.
Music is not just entertainment, Dudamel says, later. It can transform us. “You’re sitting there for a symphony that is 30 or 50 minutes, and time is gone,” he says. “You are on a journey of harmony and beauty. It unites us, even if we come in feeling completely different.”
Under Dudamel’s leadership, the L.A. Philharmonic has spread orchestral music’s unifying power. The group is known to play with pop stars like Billie Eilish. These stars attract a younger audience. It also runs Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA). YOLA has worked with more than 1,500 kids. It provides them with instruments. It gives them lessons. It gets them ready to take the stage. (See “Classical Rocks.”) To Dudamel, orchestral music is an art form that no one should be excluded from.
A Musical Education
Dudamel was raised in Venezuela. His mother was a voice teacher. His father played trombone in a salsa band. Dudamel’s family was important to his musical development. Also important was the family he found in El Sistema. That’s Venezuela’s classical-music education and performance program. It’s for disadvantaged youth. Dudamel joined when he was 5 years old.
The YOLA program was launched in 2007. Dudamel had shown El Sistema’s work to members of the L.A. Philharmonic organization. He took them to Venezuela. He introduced them to El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu. To Dudamel, Abreu was not just a teacher. He was a cheerleader. He was a reminder of what can be achieved. That’s what Dudamel has become to members of YOLA.
Creating the Future
The roots Dudamel put down in Los Angeles have spread far beyond Disney Hall. In October 2021, the Beckmen YOLA Center opened its doors. That’s in Inglewood, California. When Dudamel first saw the center, he cried.
He remembers something Abreu once told him: The young musicians of El Sistema shouldn’t have to make do with a program that’s simply “good enough.” They should have the best instruments. They should have the best teachers. And they should have the most-inspiring spaces in which to grow and thrive.
The lesson for Dudamel? “Give these children the resources, and they will create their own future—their own dimension,” he says.
Obi-Wan Kenobi couldn’t have put it better.
Performing in the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles requires lots of hard work. It also offers exciting opportunities. YOLA played at Super Bowl 50. That was in 2016. The group helped kick off the halftime show. They performed with Coldplay. That’s a British band. Bruno Mars and Beyoncé followed.
At a rehearsal, students looked forward to the experience. “I love football,” one of them said. “And getting to play on that stage, like all the other artists, is amazing.” —By Jaime Joyce