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Dudamel brings his YOLA youth symphony's spirit, and message, to Oakland

What this country needs is a really good $5 concert.

And that is what Oakland got Sunday at the sold-out, 2,800-seat Paramount Theatre as Gustavo Dudamel conducted YOLA, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, created by the Los Angeles Philharmonic when Dudamel became music director in 2006. The concert, for which all seats were $5, was the climax of YOLA’s first tour, with stops in Northridge, Visalia and Fresno.

Extraordinary as it has been, the YOLA success story should surprise no one. The orchestra has taken its young players (some of whom had hardly ever been out of South L.A.) to Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, London, Tokyo, the Super Bowl and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Give kids opportunities, and guess what?  It’s not rocket science.

Still, there was the undeniable thrill Sunday of seeing accomplished young musicians who began with cardboard violins and the like a decade ago  having become a genuine orchestra with its own distinctive look, style and sound.

The look is what you encounter first as the players file onstage, stylish in jeans, dark blazers and black-and-white sneakers, designed by Dana Neillie, who was also responsible for their Super Bowl outfits. If it had nothing else going for it, YOLA at least would deserve note for being the most fashionable orchestra anywhere.

That style is not insignificant. It helps makes the players feel special. YOLA looks like it means business. The kids come across as cool, even a little teenage cocky, but also wide-eyed. That is how they play as well. They know they are good. But they also know that they are not that good. Dudamel — who conducted the Oakland show after YOLA’s music director, Juan Felipe Molano, led the other tour stops — demands from YOLA what he does from any orchestra, so the young musicians are always on edge.

As for style of playing, YOLA has a sense of ensemble that comes from its members growing up together. The players are worshipfully alert to Dudamel’s every nuance. There is a sense of dance in their approach to rhythm, a sense of play in their performing. The orchestra sound is a bold one. The musicians are in the midst of an ongoing struggle to master their instruments, but they have the ability to make a proud statement with them.

Thus, there can be no critical language adequate for YOLA’s performances. Maturity and string intonation are still years ahead. In their place is a sense of music coming into being, coming alive as it is being made, something that will become inevitably lost when instrumental polish becomes shinier.

Dance music dominated a program in which each piece was preceded by videos of Dudamel working with YOLA over the years and players speaking about their experiences with considerable eloquence. Dance  is what young people do naturally and often best. In Mexican composer Arturo Márquez’s “Conga del Fuego,” which began the afternoon, a cellist proudly twirled his instrument as others in the orchestra swayed as they played. Half the orchestra was on it feet and ready to rumba for the encore of Márquez’s Danzón No. 2. 

That quality, if not the actual dancing, penetrated Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (from the Ninth Symphony), Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 and the final movement of Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony. “Raiders March” from John Williams’ score to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” had an adolescent vibrancy essential to the music that no professional orchestra could quite replicate.

The model for all this, of course, is the El Sistema music education program of Venezuela, of which Dudamel is the most famous product and its most prominent promoter. Practically everywhere he goes, he jump-starts music programs for children. YOLA players, for instance, spent the Sunday morning in workshops with younger children from 13 similar Bay Area groups, as well as with students in the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland School for the Arts music programs. Next week, Dudamel will be working with the El Sistema network in and around Boston.

The YOLA concert in Oakland, which was presented by Cal Performances of UC Berkeley, further served as prelude to the L.A. Phil’s short West Coast tour that began the following day, with Dudamel conducting Andrew Norman’s “Play” and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in San Francisco. That program, given Friday night in Disney, is notable for the overpowering passion of Dudamel’s Tchaikovsky and for a final revision of Norman’s major orchestral work, an intricate, brazen effusion of orchestra play that may someday be seen in retrospect as the breakthrough work of this 35-year-old Los Angeles composer who is rapidly becoming a major voice in American music.

The YOLA Oakland concert, however, represents something more. It helps to explain what is at stake for Dudamel in Venezuela. With his country possibly headed for revolution, Sistema’s federal funding allows an unpopular government to use the program for propaganda (something that all Venezuelan governments have done in various, if perhaps not always such disagreeable, ways) and for Dudamel to be dubbed a collaborator. But Dudamel has made clear that his duty and loyalty remain with the children of Sistema and that he would no more forsake them than a Venezuelan doctor would forsake his patients because his hospital relies on government funding.  

A vast program like El Sistema could exist only with this kind of government funding. In contrast, YOLA serves 800 students, barely more than one-tenth of 1% of Venezuela’s nationwide Sistema.  Every one of YOLA’s 60 alumni have graduated high school, and nearly all of them have gone on to college. With a success story like that, to say nothing of the sheer exhilaration of seeing hundreds of inspired children in the Oakland audience, L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda told me Sunday that she would like to greatly expand the program throughout Los Angeles.

All it would take, she said, was money.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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