Easter Day 2007, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that Gustavo Dudamel would become the music director in 2009. But he didn't wait long to start Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. By fall 2007, children from South L.A., most Latino or African American, were gathering at Exposition Park to learn instruments and play in a kiddie orchestra dubbed YOLA, inspired by Venezuela's El Sistema music education program in which Dudamel had grown up.
A few months later, Dudamel came to coach YOLA, and his appearance had all the trappings of a well-publicized feel-good photo op. Civic leaders and the media gathered to watch cute kids get a quick lesson.
It proved to be surprisingly stirring, serious business. Within 45 minutes, youngsters with rudimentary training showed such ambition that Dudamel promised to put them on the stage of Walt Disney Concert Hall if they worked hard enough.
Over the last decade, YOLA has gotten a lot better and gone a lot further. Dudamel has taken the young musicians, some of whom had never been outside of L.A., to play at the Barbican Centre in London and Suntory Hall in Tokyo. He got them on this year's Super Bowl halftime show. Invited to give the keynote speech for the recipients of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal awarded by President Obama last month, Dudamel brought along a YOLA woodwind quintet to perform in Washington.
Now YOLA embarks on its first tour, a series of concerts in California beginning Sunday at the Valley Performing Arts Center with a concert led by the orchestra's music director, Juan Felipe Molano, and culminating in Oakland a week later with a concert conducted by Dudamel.
"I'm so proud of YOLA and that we are taking this tour," Dudamel said in his office recently. "It's not the Los Angeles Philharmonic. No, this is a youth orchestra that has come from nothing to something. These children believe in what they are doing. It reflects El Sistema. These YOLA children are living the life I was once living."
It's true. YOLA has, as hoped, changed lives. Thanks to it, inner-city kids are now in college and conservatory. Despite the troubles in Venezuela these days, 700,000 children, according to some estimates, continue to be helped by El Sistema, turning hopelessness for many into hope — and free lunches. The program is, without question, a phenomenal success.
End of story? Unfortunately, no.
Because the situation is so bad in Venezuela — a once oil-rich nation now faced with dire shortages of essential goods, runaway inflation, a high murder rate, suspended elections and political repression — Dudamel and El Sistema have become mired in controversy. El Sistema is operated under and funded by the executive branch of the Venezuela government.
That means that Sistema's flagship ensemble, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, of which Dudamel is music director, must regularly play for national functions, not unlike our "The President's Own" United States Marine Band, which next year will be required to hail whatever new chief moves into the White House. Nevertheless, Dudamel's appearances with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro can make the conductor appear a propagandist for an unpopular regime.
Dudamel has long contended, as he did in an Times op-ed article a year ago, that he will not allow El Sistema to be politicized, that he believes it must stand for all the people. But after he opened Carnegie Hall's season with his Bolívars this month, Zachary Woolfe wrote in a New York Times critic's notebook headlined "Fiddling While Venezuela Starves?" that "there is no disentangling the performance of classical music from a state of political affairs that many object to."
"This is so funny," Dudamel responded when I asked him about that. "Now we get criticized for what we are not. People try to criticize us as politicians. We are musicians." As for El Sistema, he said: "It is not Gustavo, it's those children."
Dudamel insists that there is a basic misunderstanding about the role El Sistema plays in Venezuela. He points out that El Sistema has been supported by all nine regimes that have governed the country during the last 42 years. Some have been left, some right; some have been more generous, others less generous. But the foundation of a youth orchestra is written into the country's constitution.
Moreover, Dudamel said that he grew up playing for Venezuelan presidents and other world leaders. "I remember all these years, as a musician that I was playing for everybody, everybody.
"I have a picture from when President Clinton visited Venezuela. I was concertmaster of the National Youth Orchestra and standing just in front of me is Mr. Clinton, Mrs. Clinton and [Venezuelan] President [Rafael] Caldera. It was for us — at 12, 13, 14 — a dream to be playing for them."
Dudamel refuses to reveal an allegiance to any specific government and has the same intentions for El Sistema, whether the socialist regime of Maduro stays in power (a recall election has been called for) or a right-wing opposition party takes over. "Let's not talk about the situation of the government in Venezuela," he said, hoping to change the subject. "Let's talk about the people and a way to build a better future for them."
But as Dudamel acknowledges, it is impossible not to talk about the crisis in Venezuela, and the difficulty of promoting music education when there is not enough food or medicine to go around.
"I understand the unrest," Dudamel said. He has, in fact, dramatically cut down his guest conducting so that he can spend more time in Venezuela working with El Sistema, from which he takes no salary. "I understand that when you need food, you focus on that. It is a crisis, and I suffer from it too. All my family is living in Venezuela, even my son is now there.
"With what is happening right now, everybody sees that everything is bad. But in times of crisis you need more than ever to find symbols of hope. You need to understand how we got there so that we can find a better way to do things. And you need to understand that we are all in this together."
For Dudamel, what El Sistema offers is that glimmer of hope and the vision of a bigger picture. One way to do that, he suggests, can be to look at individual stories, to see how if one person succeeds, that success will ultimately multiply.
And for Dudamel, with any crises, the first duty is to help and protect the children. To make a better world, you must find a way to let them keep and realize their dreams.
"I will tell you something I have not said before," he said. "When I was a child, I wanted a violin, and my grandfather bought me a very cheap Chinese violin. As I improved, I needed a better violin.
"At that time Sistema didn't have the money to help us, so I went to my grandpa and I said, 'Grandpa, I need a new violin.' 'OK, how much will it cost?' he asked me.
"When I told him, he said, 'Impossible.' I cried a lot. And he cried too.
"But I said that I will find a way to have this violin I want, and then I studied the violin like crazy, like crazy. Finally when I got into the National Children's Orchestra and I played a solo for Maestro Abreu [José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema's founder], he asked me what I need.
"I said, 'I need a violin, I don't need anything else.' Next week I had the violin I wanted.
"That is not a political thing. I'm talking to you from the position of a child who was playing in the back of the violin section and, being given the chance to follow my dream, has arrived at this podium," he said, pointing in the direction of the Disney stage.
"If in that sense I'm a symbol of El Sistema, that is what is important to me."
To Dudamel, this is all the proof he needs of Abreu's philosophy that success multiplies. "If there are a thousand, a hundred thousand, and only one good result, the program is successful," Dudamel said.
Still, he is taking no chances when it comes to numbers. Everywhere he goes, Dudamel's first order of business is to start or inspire a version of El Sistema.
"The other day I was in Stockholm," he proudly explained. "I started a program when I was music director of the Gothenburg Symphony. Now there are 7,000 children in it throughout Sweden, and Sweden is a small country."
There is also Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra, and one of Dudamel's projects is to bring YOLA to Austria to collaborate with SEYO and the storied Vienna Philharmonic.
"I will never stop spreading this message of Maestro Abreu that all the children in world must have access to beauty," Dudamel concluded with an idealistic fervor that revealed a talent for politics were he to want it. "People can criticize me for things I am not, but I will never stop that."
YOLA on tour
When: Oct. 23 at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge; call (818) 677-3000 to get on the waiting list for free tickets. Oct. 27 at LJ Williams Theater in Visalia. Oct. 28 at William Saroyan Theatre in Fresno. Oct. 30 at Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
Information: www.laphil.com/education/yola (click on "YOLA's 10th Anniversary Tour")
More coverage: Look for Times video and photo galleries from the tour, the voices of YOLA members past and present, and music critic Mark Swed's report from Oakland at latimes.com/arts.