LONDON — Downing a lunch of fish and chips just before going onstage Friday at the Barbican Centre here, 10 upbeat teenagers from Los Angeles acted, like teens everywhere, as if they were casually taking it all in.
For most of these high-schoolers, this was their first trip away from home, and it didn’t take long for them to admit that everything, from flying in an airplane to witnessing a snowstorm just after they landed last Wednesday, was a gleeful new experience. But that was just the lead-up.
These musicians from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, chosen from 550 L.A. students in the YOLA program, were about to go onstage with mostly more seasoned British players, ages 10 to 22, from the Guildhall School of Music and around London for a high-profile appearance led by Gustavo Dudamel.
“You cannot play only the notes, you have to play the content,” Dudamel first told the students after a nervous, unimaginative and ill-tuned first run-through of Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture “Romeo and Juliet.”
They caught on so quickly that even a listener long familiar with Dudamel’s vividly personal approach could still be astonished by the way he transformed this ad-hoc orchestra’s playing and, more important, its intensity in a single rehearsal.
Emotions, indeed, ran so high that by the end of the “Discover Dudamel” 90-minute public rehearsal Friday afternoon — the conclusion of the three-day “Future Play” symposium jointly sponsored by the L.A. Phil and the Barbican — there were few dry eyes in the theater after the encore of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations. And that wasn’t just the audience.
The presumably cosmopolitan Guildhall musicians couldn’t hang on to their typical British reserve for long. Several looked as though they were about to lose it. They all wore T-shirts that read, by this point redundantly, “Discover Dudamel.”
“Music brought us together,” said Rodas Hailu, a violinist from Downey High School. That, and a little help from friends in high places and a conductor who all but cast a spell on dutiful students, turning them into believable artists in front of an audience’s incredulous eyes — and ears.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is taking its show, and a very big show it is, on the road. Friday’s packed public rehearsal, which received substantial media attention in the British capital, was one of the opening events for what is surely the most audacious orchestra tour of modern times.
Rather than simply play concerts in music capitals, as most touring orchestras do, the L.A. Phil — described by a BBC radio announcer last week “as famous now and as renowned as the Vienna Philharmonic” — hopes, however briefly, to export as much of its visionary brand as it can get away with. It doesn’t hurt of course that its music director is a huge draw.
It was no coincidence that Dudamel’s passion for music education would bring 10 YOLA students to London. But the challenge the L.A. Phil posed in London at the “Future Play” symposium was, as articulated by director Peter Sellars in his untempered keynote speech, authentically audacious. “We need to address things that have never been done well in human history,” namely the creation of genuine democracy, he asserted. To do that, Sellars insisted, these institutions must overcome their inherent “nightmarish fascist structures,” and stop force-feeding singular cultural points of view and offer a global perspective.
At the Barbican residency, which ended Sunday, and beyond, the L.A. Phil includes three very different performances: a trademark Green Umbrella new music concert, the European premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” with Sellars’ staging, and an orchestra concert of works by Claude Vivier, Debussy and Stravinsky — all of which were hot tickets in this town spoiled by musical choices.
“The Other Mary” production and the orchestra program are now traveling to Lucerne, Switzerland; Paris; and New York. This requires an enormous orchestra, 15 tons of luggage (the instruments and sets) and hiring three big-rigs to transport them over the snowy Alps on a tight schedule. Not to mention that the orchestra is bringing 48 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Plus the kids from YOLA, along with the music staff needed to supervise them. And no matter how impressive this massive tour may turn out to be, it’s hard to imagine that anything will make a more lasting impression than “Discover Dudamel” did.
The YOLA contingent represents a small step toward that utopian prospect of a society changed through music. Most began as children in this education program started by the L.A. Phil five years ago and modeled after the El Sistema music education program that produced Dudamel in his native Venezuela.
A couple of the players who were invited to London were, indeed, once headed for gangs. The 16-year-old clarinetist Miguel Ortega of South L.A. told the symposium that YOLA “personally saved my life by stopping me from being involved with people who are negative.”
At a reception after the rehearsal, Dudamel, although only 32, said he felt like a proud papa having worked with some of these musicians when they were very small and used to address him as Mr. Gustavo. The musicians, too, seemed well aware of their maturing relationship with their mentor.
Hailu, an eloquent 16-year-old with ambitions to enter journalism, confessed that she was more nervous on her first plane ride during take-off than participating in the demanding public rehearsing with Dudamel. She pretty much knew what to expect. What is different, she said, is that she’s now more open to Dudamel’s direct emotional approach to music-making than she had been when she began in YOLA as a guardedly shy child 5 1/2 years ago.
The rehearsal concentrated on Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” fantasy-overture, which Dudamel led from memory (even calling out measure numbers).
When he wanted more passion from the love music, Dudamel stopped the violas and English horn, saying that if Romeo were to sound like this, “Juliet will go with another one.” He had them put their instruments down and sing the passage a couple of times, which seemed to give the British kids a start but clearly helped to raise the temperature of their blood.
The YOLA musicians knew to expect this from Dudamel but they were kept on edge because they were playing this difficult orchestral showpiece for the first time as Tchaikovsky had written it, rather than in a more simplified version. Dudamel, though, would not accept even a hint of caution from the orchestra. He reminded the students that the “Romeo and Juliet” fight music must convey the deadly clash of sharp metal swords, not the swishy sounds he was hearing that reminded him of something out of “Star Wars.”
He sang the passages, making up words as if this were an opera. He enticed the different sections of the orchestra to play as if they were acting roles in Shakespeare’s drama. He would not relent until the percussion got it startlingly right.
“I don’t like ‘Discover Dudamel,’” he told the orchestra when he finally got what he was after. Mirroring what Sellars had said earlier, he said he wanted to change the attention to them and Tchaikovsky, to opening up a new generation to the place where they could, maybe for the first time, communicate their life experience.
Abdiel Lopez, 16, a gregarious violinist from South L.A., credits YOLA with inspiring him to devote his life to becoming an activist for human rights and said multicultural London made him feel like he fit right in on his first visit.
As the other YOLA members patiently waited for the effusive remarks at the reception to end so that they could hit the pastry table, Lopez beamed and said that the afternoon, quite simply, “brought joy to us.”
Those tears welling up in the young musicians’ eyes after the “Nimrod” encore were ultimately tears of entitlement.