When Edson Natareno talks about how Youth Orchestra L.A. has changed his prospects, his voice thickens with emotion.
"It's really kept me concentrated; it's really kept me away from bad things in life," says the 15-year-old clarinet player, who recently won a music scholarship to the Colburn School and hopes to join a professional orchestra someday.
As Edson's mother, Maria Simantal, describes her feelings when her son was among 10 YOLA students picked to perform last March in London with Gustavo Dudamel, she beams and uses a word in her native Spanish, orgullosa — proud.
It was Simantal who encouraged her son to join YOLA, sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, after a schoolteacher noticed his singing ability. She doesn't know where Edson's musical aptitude comes from; at home, she says with a laugh, "he doesn't like to listen to my rancheras."
But she believes so much in YOLA's mission of using music to help at-risk, underserved youth that she now spends many hours volunteering at the orchestra's base at Harmony Project, in the Expo Center near the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
In the half-dozen years since the Phil launched YOLA, it has produced a handful of students like Edson with unusual artistic promise. At 4 p.m. Sunday, some of those star pupils will perform for the first time onstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Phil. The free concert conducted by music director Dudamel will be simulcast on giant screens in Grand Park. The program will include the Fourth movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 and Arturo Márquez's "Conga del Fuego." The musicians also will play a few numbers with La Santa Cecilia, the Latin Grammy-nominated L.A. pop band.
Since its founding, the youth orchestra has become a national leader in a burgeoning music-education movement modeled on El Sistema, the celebrated Venezuelan program in which Dudamel apprenticed. Sunday's concert marks another milestone for the troupe, composed of about 300 students who train at Expo and 255 more based at HOLA, Heart of Los Angeles, a bustling Wilshire Boulevard community center.
Eric Booth, an education specialist, adviser and author, says Sunday's event is the latest indicator of how the Phil is attaining its ambitious goals. Around the country, Booth says, the roughly 100 El Sistema-inspired music-education programs turn to the Phil for leadership and as a positive model of how to adapt the Venezuelan program's lofty aspirations to the needs and resources of U.S. communities.
"They've both exceeded their own expectations and the hopes from the field," Booth says of the Phil.
In an email, Dudamel said that "the LA Phil's involvement with YOLA has broadened the organization's horizons even further than we thought possible." The amount of time he devotes to championing the program, he said, "is never a question of less or more, it is essential."
But in a way, the involvement of people like Edson's mother might provide the most telling measure of the program's goals and achievements.
Like El Sistema, YOLA was conceived as a social project first and an artistic project second, although the objectives are regarded as complementary. That community-building philosophy has attracted not only students but also relatives, community leaders and aspiring music teachers studying in a recently established master of arts in teaching degree program supported in partnership by the Phil, Bard College in New York and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.
The youth orchestra also has won the enthusiastic support of the Phil's musicians. Mitchell Newman, who plays in the orchestra's first violins, says that Dudamel's "collaborative" leadership as well as his personal example as a product of El Sistema has spurred the Phil's institutional embrace of the initiative.
Although participation is strictly voluntary, a number of Phil musicians work regularly with YOLA students. A third YOLA nucleo, at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts on the campus of Cal State L.A., will be opening soon. The Phil's annual budget for education-related activities is about $3.5 million, which includes the three youth orchestra programs.
"It hasn't been about making the next Jascha Heifetz for the violin," Newman says. "It's about having a lot of people enjoy and participate and learn and grow as human beings."
Christine Witkowski, director of YOLA at HOLA, has watched that process take root in the three years that YOLA has operated at the HOLA site. The community that HOLA serves is about 70% Latino and 25% Korean, with the rest composed of Filipino, African American and other students. When YOLA at HOLA opened in 2010, that ethnic mixture produced tensions.
"Our very first week of programming, we had a huge, huge challenge with our Korean-speaking students and our Spanish-speaking students because they would self-segregate in class," Witkowski says.
"And so we didn't focus on music for the first week, we focused on community-building and on appreciating one another's diversity. And that involved really pulling in our parents and asking our parents to come in and talk about their culture and special traditions and to share them with one another and to share them with the students."
Today, Witkowski says, ethnic segregation is a thing of the past, as evidenced by the center's family potluck dinners. "Everybody's plate has Korean barbecue and sushi and then also all these great tamales."
Deborah Borda, the Phil's president, says her organization is using various metrics in attempting to gauge YOLA's success. One of the more unusual is a decade-long study by USC neurologist Antonio Demasio, author of the influential book "Descartes' Error," who's assessing the neurological development of YOLA students compared with that of children in youth soccer leagues, Borda says.
"This is going to, I think, have international repercussions in terms of very clearly demonstrating the link between the processes that go into developing musicians," she says.
In the meantime, anecdotal examples abound. Elizabeth Baker, a Phil first violinist, tuned in to YOLA when Dudamel conducted some of its students during a 2009 Hollywood Bowl concert welcoming him to L.A.
"The looks on their faces, they had such pride," Baker recalls. Now she's enrolled in the Bard-Longy MAT degree program, which she juggles with her schedule of L.A. Phil commitments. And she logs many volunteer hours instructing YOLA students.
And she's contemplating one day starting her own youth music school in New Mexico, where she and her husband own property." It makes perfect sense to me," Baker says, "that when you give a child an instrument, they realize that they can do more with their life than they could possibly imagine."