Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles scores big with NFL Super Bowl week performance

A teenager plays a violin.
Kevon Fortune, 16, stands for a portrait with his violin before practice with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. The orchestra is rehearsing for the 11th “NFL Honors” show before Super Bowl LVI.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Violinist Kevon Fortune will spend his 17th birthday playing music for football legends. Fortune is a member of the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which was been selected to perform before — and during — the 11th “NFL Honors” show. The event will be broadcast live Thursday night on ABC as part of the celebrations leading up to Sunday’s Super Bowl game at SoFi Stadium.

“I was like, ‘No way. Am I gonna get to see football players? And they’re picking me?’” Fortune says of the moment he heard he was going to be one of 54 orchestra members to play during the awards show. The event will honor the NFL’s MVP, as well as coach of the year, comeback player of the year and offensive and defensive players of the year, among others. The NFL will be donating $60,000 to the nonprofit youth group, which is one of the nation’s largest primarily African American orchestras.

Young musicians rehearse.
Kevon Fortune, in the white hoodie, rehearses with the Inner City Youth Orchestra for the “NFL Honors” show.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
A member of the orchestra marks sheet music.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Charles Dickerson, the orchestra’s founder and conductor, says it’s the first time the awards ceremony will feature an orchestra for its music program. The group will play a pre-show concert featuring the “Star Wars” main theme and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” among other tunes. During the event, the orchestra will also play music by longtime NFL composer David Robidoux.

“Everybody is excited,” says Dickerson. “I wish I could bring all of the young people who are part of our orchestra to participate.”

The orchestra has about 120 members, but only about half the musicians will be able to perform because of the size of the show’s stage. Dickerson, who says he feels bad about that, selected the group’s more senior and advanced players, like Fortune and 17-year-old flutist Leah Marcelle, who has been with the orchestra since she was 12.

Marcelle, who will head off to college soon and plans to major in biology and study medicine, says the orchestra has helped her academically as well as musically.

“I like the environment,” she says. “All the people are very friendly, and I like that when professionals are brought in. I learn so much from them.”

A young woman stands with her flute for a portrait.
Leah Marcelle, 17, stands for a portrait with her flute before practice with the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Dickerson founded the orchestra in 2009, but he says he is credited as the “founder” only because he was the adult in the room when it started. Dickerson recalls that nine high school instrumentalists came to him as a conductor and said they wanted to create a space where they could learn and rehearse music and prepare and perform concerts. The students asked Dickerson if he would be their leader. The group started in June 2009 with those players, says Dickerson; at the end of summer, there were 24. By fall, that number had grown to 50.

“There are many youth orchestras, but ours is the only one that lives and breathes in the heart of a Black community in the United States,” says Dickerson, who noted that the group is not related to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA, which separately announced that it would play on Sunday as part of the Super Bowl’s pregame lineup.

The “NFL Honors” show isn’t Inner City Youth Orchestra’s only high-profile gig. The group has also made appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as well as at community centers and churches throughout the city. Despite this work, Dickerson says very few members have gone on to join professional orchestras.

“I’m opening up a wider issue: the lack of diversity in the whole orchestra industry,” says Dickerson, adding that he is one of five Black members of the 60-person board of the League of American Orchestras, a national service organization with 700 member orchestras. “Appropriately addressing the lack of equity, diversity and inclusion in American orchestras is a very hot issue right now.”

Charles Dickerson, executive director, at rehearsal.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
The non-profit is the largest majority Black orchestra in the country.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The youth group is working in collaboration with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and USC’s Thornton School of Music on a fellowship program to train emerging professional musicians to “take and win” auditions with American orchestras, Dickerson says. He adds that two participants in that program are actively auditioning nationwide and that one recently auditioned for the L.A. Philharmonic.

Whether the young musicians go on to study music or not, they carry the lessons they’ve learned through the orchestra into their adult lives, Dickerson says. The college graduation rate for young people in the program is approximately 96%, he says.

Fortune says he’s already gearing up for college. The Venice High School student wants to become an aerospace engineer. His No. 1 college pick is San Jose State, with the University of Texas at Arlington second.

“I have a list of 10, but I haven’t made an adequate list,” Fortune says. “In a few months, I’ll have to start applying. Just the other day, I was running around playing freeze tag, and now I have to start my adult life.”