In the second excerpt from Tricia Tunstall's new book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, the first visit of Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela to the US in 2007 acts as a catalyst to bring "the Sistema-inspired momentum that had been simultaneously building on both coasts [to] a new peak of energy and excitement."
In November 2007, Gustavo Dudamel took the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela on their first tour of the United States, performing in Los Angeles and Boston and culminating in New York with a Carnegie Hall debut. For the El Sistema movement builders in Los Angeles and Boston, the arrival of Dudamel and his flagship youth orchestra served as a potent catalyst. With the virtuosic, ebullient young Venezuelan musicians crowding the stages of venerable concert halls and turning staid season ticket-holders into frenzied fans, the Sistema-inspired momentum that had been simultaneously building on both coasts reached a new peak of energy and excitement. In each city, there was a spontaneous convening of arts educators and social reformers on the day the Venezuelans came to town, focused on how to bring the dream of an El Sistema in the United States closer to reality.
In Los Angeles, the meeting took the form of a symposium attended by representatives from over twenty "stakeholder organizations" who had rallied to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's call for a city-wide youth orchestra movement—people who rarely found themselves in the same room together, much less engaged in alliance-building toward universal music education. "There were academic people from the universities," says Leni Boorstin. "There were people connected to the public after-school programs. There were music schools and there were charter schools. There was the Harmony Project, which was already working to bring music education to underserved kids in L.A. And there were people from the public schools system—the Los Angeles Unified School District.
This assemblage of urgent and often competing interests had been able, over the course of meetings throughout the previous year, to achieve unanimity around the common cause of creating a youth orchestra movement in Los Angeles. At the symposium, their new mission was officially announced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on the very stage in Walt Disney Concert Hall where the Venezuelan ensemble would perform later that evening.
"It was so exciting!" remembers Grethcen Nielsen. "They all stood on the stage in Walt Disney Concert Hall behind Deborah Borda, kind of a big rally call. It was such a strong symbolic statement: 'We are all behind this! There's going to be a youth orchestra movement in L.A.!'"
It was especially exciting, Gretchen and Leni tell me, that along with the orchestra leaders and arts educators onstage, there were representatives of the mayor's office and his office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. There was no mistaking that this rallying cry for a new movement was social as well as artistic in nature.
To the crowd of artists, educators, and policy makers that packed the hall, Deborah Borda formally announced the new partnership, called YOLA—Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. "This is possibly the first time," she said. "that an orchestra has taken the initiative to lead a coalition of partners to take on a social issue. El Sistema shows us what is possible: never before has the power of music been concentrated in this way to change the lives of children."
YOLA's goal, she continued, was to build between three and five children's orchestras in underserved communities in Los Angeles, in partnership with community organizations, over the following decade. As a first step forward, the L.A. Phil planned to collaborate with several partners to create a brand-new children's orchestra at the EXPO Center in the mostly Latino and African-American district of South Central Los Angeles. In an Abreu-style move, Deborah Borda promised the audience that the new orchestra—which at that moment did not exist—would perform a public concert within a year at the EXPO center.
The Los Angeles Symposium was guided and moderated by Eric Booth, a renowned leader in the fields of arts education and arts engagement in communities. Eric remembers that the Walt Disney Concert Hall was filled with excitement that day. "It was really hot," he says. "The was a clear sense that something big was happening."
After Deborah Borda's speech, Dudamel took the stage for an interview with a local radio host. "Gustavo wasn't a superstar yet," Eric says. "He hadn't even been formally appointed by the L.A. Phil. But hearing him speak was incredible. And it wasn't the thrill of celebrity—it was simply the sense that he was an amazing guy, with a great story.
Gretchen Nielsen agrees that the excitement in the air that day was palpable, and points out that it was deeper than simply fanfare. "It was a day of asking questions," she says, "of asking 'What's possible? Could we actually bring EL Sistema here?'"
She adds that when the symposium participants gathered that night to hear Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, the young Venezuelans "answered the question of 'What's possible' in a way we could never have dreamed of."
Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall is published by W. W. Norton & Company.
Related:December 7, Venezuelan Brass EnsembleDecember 8, Discovery Day: El SistemaDecember 8, Música nuevaDecember 9, Carnegie Hall Family Concert: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaDecember 10, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaDecember 11, Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaVoices from Latin AmericaVoices from Latin America: VenezuelaVoices from Latin America: Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaVoices from Latin America: Latin American ComposersVoices from Latin America: El SistemaChanging Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music at the Carnegie Hall Shop