The announcement that Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel will conduct members of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles in the Super Bowl halftime show is big news for the world of classical music. Nothing like that has happened in the 50 years of the event.
Yet, could anything be more natural than Dudamel and YOLA at the Super Bowl? The inspiring youth orchestra, which Dudamel initiated in 2009 when he assumed his post with the L.A. Phil, is composed of mainly African American, Asian and Latino inner city kids. And after seven years of instruction and rigorous practice, they now represent the best of who we are as a society and of our future. They play rousing Beethoven and romantic Tchaikovsky with an irresistible, heart-warming commitment and flair.
Meanwhile, in the half-century since Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic, Dudamel has become the first conductor to rise as a true public figure, organically bridging the classical and pop divide. In the past few weeks alone, the television comedy series "Mozart in the Jungle," based on a Dudamel-like conductor, won two Golden Globe awards, and millions of moviegoers have heard Dudamel conduct the opening and closing music of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
An estimated 120 million viewers of the Super Bowl are, for Dudamel, practically business as usual. Nearly all of his 30 million fellow native Venezuelans have seen Dudamel conduct on national television. He is one of his country's best-known figures, and he performs regularly for Venezuela's major occasions and celebrations. Much of Latin America knows him, as does an increasing portion of the rest of the civilized world. All told, Dudamel has surely reached, one way or another, 120 million people by now.
But, of course, classical music at the Super Bowl is not business as usual. These will not be the same 120 million viewers. Most will already know Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, also slated (or at least rumored) to participate in the 50th Super Bowl. But in this divided country of ours, one of the big divides is the phony distinction between pop culture and, for want of a better word, classical. The divide between high art and low, whatever that means. Opera star Renée Fleming sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl two years ago, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma once appeared in a Super Bowl commercial, but you'd have to look far and wide to find much else from the classical world at this game.
The fact is that neither classical music nor Dudamel is out of step with populist sport or culture. Rather, it is the ever more commercial Super Bowl festivities — officially the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show — along with America's broader public discourse that has increasingly come to disassociate itself from the arts or a sense of shared, historical culture.
Culture in general, and classical music in particular, play a part in the Olympics and soccer's World Cup. Russia's most important conductor, Valery Gergiev, was put in charge of music for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Remember those 84 pianists who played "Rhapsody in Blue" in the Coliseum during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 L.A. Summer Games?
Thanks to three soccer-besotted opera stars, the Three Tenors came together at the 1990 World Cup in Rome. Also thanks to Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras, the aria "Nessun Dorma," from Puccini's "Turandot," has since become soccer's unofficial anthem and a part of pop culture. It was famously and fabulously sung by Aretha Franklin at the Grammys, and it shows up in movie after movie soundtrack.
So it should be a no-brainer to include Dudamel and YOLA at the Super Bowl. We have not yet learned what they will play. (They may still be figuring that out.) Williams is a good bet, but so is Beethoven. Anything they choose should work, because the bigger story is sure to be YOLA.
That Dudamel will up his viewership ante by an estimated 120 million is nothing but good news for classical music and the L.A. Phil. But what matters most is that the young players of YOLA will share this vast audience. Seven years ago, these were children in South L.A. and other working-class neighborhoods who had little or no knowledge of music. Some were headed toward gangs and crime. Others may have dreamed of fame in pop music or sports, but those dreams come true for very few.
However, through YOLA, regular kids given the opportunity and encouragement to devote themselves to studying music will now ascend an unimaginably vast stage.
Dudamel has been criticized for his collaboration with the controversial Venezuelan government on that country's amazing music education program, El Sistema, reaching hundreds of thousands of needy children.
We in America, though, don't have the luxury of such an argument about music education.
Culture is no longer part of national discourse. Few seem to be asking the presidential candidates what they plan to do for the arts. Education is too little discussed. We are at odds about how to integrate our multicultural society. YOLA is one model. The few hundred members of YOLA may be a minuscule fraction of El Sistema's size. But their achievement, thanks to Dudamel, is not.
Either the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos will be the Super Bowl winner. Enormous sums of money will be spent in the process — by the media, the teams, big business and fans, surely far more than is spent on music education all year in our public schools. Then we will move on to the next big media event, be it the Oscars or whatever.
Yet the lasting victory of Super Bowl 50 could be YOLA's appearance. Let this begin a new national dialogue about the unique role that art and culture can play in bridging the divide between the haves and have nots. That really would be big news.