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Entertainment & Arts

The pitfalls and joys of taking a stand with music and with youngsters

LOS ANGELES, CA. JUL. 22, 2017. The National Take a Stand Festival orchestra performs in final conc
Three bass players in the National Take a Stand Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night.
(Lawrence K. Ho /Los Angeles Philharmonic)

From Friday through Sunday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted its fifth cleverly named Take a Stand symposium, a gathering of more than 300 educators around the country who are involved with music training programs, such as YOLA (Youth Orchestra L.A.) and patterned after Venezuela’s El Sistema.

There were essential sessions on strategizing, effective teaching methods for kids from different (and often underprivileged) backgrounds, the latest research on these programs’ effectiveness, discussions of technical matters, the global perspective and basically how to find every which way out of the classical music box.

All this is business as usual. And business for this program, which is also administered by the Longy School of Music and Bard College, has been good.

This season’s symposium concluded with a National Take a Stand Festival, in which 101 musicians, ages 12 to 17, from dozens of U.S. programs, were selected to form an orchestra. The L.A. Phils’ Venezuela-born music director, Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s most famous representative, is largely responsible for the program’s international influence. He and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra’s principal conductor, Thomas Wilkins, helped train the ensemble and they took turns conducting it in a special performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday night.

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Take one look at and one listen to the National Take a Stand Orchestra; you can hardly miss that this is exactly what everyone in the field has been hoping for and what, it seems, everyone outside the field keeps saying doesn’t and can’t exist. We’ve heard forever the cries of elitism (hardly), the myopic laments about aging audiences, the complaints that the vast majority of classical musicians don’t represent the multi-ethnic population of our cities.

Deniers have a point about that last one. Diversity is a problem. Despite all the goodwill in the world, it will still require generations to train young players. The direst of predictions suggest that orchestras may not last that long.

But let me put on my rose-colored glasses. Around the time self-driving electric cars and an expanded Metro make getting to Disney Hall far faster and easier for people all over L.A., there may be an orchestra inside much more like a mature Take a Stand than anything we are now used to, an orchestra that looks like and plays in ways that reflect the world we live in.

Removing the glasses, however, an elephant suddenly appears in the room. Venezuela. With the country on the verge of economic collapse, an increasingly authoritarian government generating a possible constitutional crisis and perpetual demonstrations that could lead to a full-scale revolution, El Sistema seems to be under threat. In Venezuela right now, there is practically no business as usual.

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El Sistema’s executive director, Eduardo Méndez, and several musicians from the program who had planned to travel to L.A. for the symposium had to cancel at the last minute because of the uprising. Dudamel and El Sistema’s renowned Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra have also had to postpone engagements in Colombia for “logistical reasons,” those being that with so many streets and highways in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, shut down by daily protests, the musicians couldn’t get to rehearsal.

Even as the National Take a Stand Orchestra was playing, there were news reports from Caracas that a popular Sistema-trained violinist had been wounded — shot by police with rubber bullets — while playing in a demonstration.

How much does this undercut the basic premise of El Sistema and the programs it has inspired worldwide, including in the U.S.? El Sistema advocates teaching children how to work together despite their differences by playing in orchestras. Exchange guns for instruments is the persuasive motto of El Sistema’s evangelical founder, José Antonio Abreu.

“With these instruments and this music, we can change the world, and we are doing it,” Dudamel said to an avid audience during the youth orchestra concert Saturday. Despite everything, it seemed at that moment impossible not to believe him.

The young players had arrived in L.A. as strangers nine days earlier. They came from many backgrounds, with Latinos and African Americans in the majority. Wilkins conducted Coleridge-Taylor’s “Danse Négre,” the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” and “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. Dudamel led Tchaikovsky’s Slavonic March and the Mambo from Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” which included the musicians waving their instruments in the air, Sistema style.

Then, without having told anyone they were planning on doing this, the kids broke into their own thing, brass players improvising, others dancing.

Music poured out of all of them. Yet they remained focused. A few string players were as physically active, if not more so, than violist Carrie Dennis, who left the L.A Phil at season’s end. Some — not me! — found her gestures distractingly physical. Maybe she’s just ahead of her time. Kiss staid orchestras goodbye. The new generation is following in her footsteps.

The mold is definitely breaking, but it is anyone’s guess how 100 young musicians playing for maybe 1,000 listeners can change the world. Isn’t it enough that they have changed their lives, and that they can go on to change others’ lives? And that the audience, which consisted mostly of their mentors and artistic movers and shakers, can use the knowledge of this success to change many more lives?

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Just as the symposium started, Dudamel submitted an editorial in Spanish to the Madrid newspaper El País and in English to the New York Times in which he took his strongest stand so far about the situation in Venezuela, calling on the government to withdraw its attempts to write a new constitution without the approval of the people.

After long resisting angry calls for him to get involved in the protests, Dudamel told me that he no longer had a choice. “You know I didn’t want to speak out,” he said, “but we have arrived at a point where you have to say something.”

But Dudamel also acknowledged the delicacy of his position as a public figure in Venezuela, where he continues to work with El Sistema and where he feels a personal responsibility for the welfare of the students. “It’s for the children,” he says. “That is the reality. I cannot go and say things in a very relaxed way as if that is not my responsibility.

“People feel the right to judge other people in a very superficial way. I have been speaking, we have been speaking out with music all the time. That is also the reality.”

While Dudamel may not find it appropriate to take sides or name names, he does say that he has had enough of false promises from politicians. As he told the symposium, politicians love to talk about the future, because they don’t have to do anything in the present. “The present is the future!” he said.

The next night, the National Take a Stand Orchestra proved it.

mark.swed@latimes.com


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