L.A. Philharmonic heads to Venezuela with hopes, fears

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When Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, talks about her orchestra’s 10-day concert tour to Venezuela that begins Friday, she uses two pointed descriptive terms.

One is “critical mass.” Another, delivered with a chuckle, is “insane.” She also might have added potentially “transformative” and, perhaps, “risky.”

Borda calls the tour, a multi-pronged endeavor built around the L.A. Phil’s performances of Gustav Mahler’s nine finished symphonies, “the biggest thing we’ve done since we opened Walt Disney Concert Hall” in 2003.


It’s also a further sign of the orchestra’s building investment in the artistic vision and celebrity status of its charismatic 31-year-old music director, Gustavo Dudamel, who will be returning to his native country along with 117 Phil musicians, nine soloists, 26 staff members and 31 deep-pocketed patrons and guests.

There are many potential payoffs, but the trip will have numerous logistical hurdles and a few hazards to navigate for Borda, Dudamel and their colleagues when their chartered 737 jet touches down Friday night in Caracas.

Among the challenges are Caracas’ well-known crime and formidable traffic, a grueling rehearsal and performance schedule, and the language gap between the primarily English-speaking L.A. musicians and their collaborators, the Spanish-speaking members of the Simon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which took part in the recently completed 17-concert cycle of Mahler’s symphonies in Los Angeles and will share the performance load in Caracas.

At least some L.A. Phil musicians are less worried about the rigors of Mahler than about Caracas’ reputation as one of South America’s most violent capitals.

Those anxieties were fueled last month when Mexico’s ambassador to Venezuela and his wife were kidnapped and robbed while driving their BMW in an affluent sector of eastern Caracas. The couple later were released, unharmed. In recent months, other foreign dignitaries, including a Chilean consul and a Bolivian military attaché, endured brutal “express” kidnappings in Caracas.

“Everybody reads the newspapers and watches the news and gets not a good feeling about our security and our safety down there,” said one L.A. Phil musician who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “There are a number of us that feel uncomfortable.”


L.A. Phil administrators acknowledge those apprehensions and by all accounts have been doing their best to take appropriate security measures.

“Everybody who’s gone [for pre-tour preparations] has been safe and come back,” said Gail Samuel, the L.A. Phil’s vice president and general manager. “We’re very well taken care of when we’re down there by our colleagues.”

L.A. Phil musicians also have said that the Mahler cycle’s monumental technical demands are placing a strain on them and on Dudamel, who has looked fatigued in recent weeks. The conductor, the father of a 10-month-old son, is likely to have additional personal obligations while visiting his homeland, where most of his family and many friends reside.

“It’s audacious; I hope he can hold up,” Borda said. “He seems relaxed.”

David Howard, a Phil clarinetist who visited Caracas several months ago as part of a woodwind delegation, and taught classes and performed with college-age musicians trained under El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education program, said he’d been as impressed by his hosts’ hospitality as by their artistic skills.

“I hope that all of my colleagues can be as excited and inspired by what goes on down there as I was,” he said. “You can tell people until you’re blue in the face, ‘It’s incredible what they do down there,’ and it doesn’t matter. You have to go and experience it for yourself.”

James Wilt, a trumpet player, said he too had a positive experience when he visited Caracas with an L.A. Phil brass quintet and worked with El Sistema students. He’s looking forward to returning.


“It’s not entirely selfless because I think it’s going to be key to future survival” for classical orchestras, he said. “But it’s also the right thing to do, to go into these communities and do what’s being done. It’s saved a lot of kids.”

The musicians also learned recently that they’ll have to play their first concert on Saturday, hours after arriving in Caracas, rather than the previously scheduled Sunday, because of elections that authorities believe could cause heavy traffic around the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex, where they’ll perform. (Tickets for all Caracas concerts have been sold out for months.)

But whatever the challenges, L.A. Phil administrators believe that the tour presents a unique opportunity for the organization to synthesize several of its biggest artistic, educational and community-outreach initiatives in one large-scale showcase.

Among those efforts is the orchestra’s growing role across the United States in spreading the ideals of Venezuela’s internationally lauded El Sistema music education training programs while tailoring them to fit local communities. They include the development of the L.A. Phil’s own music education programs and its youth orchestra (YOLA) targeting low-income youth. In Caracas, Phil musicians will be interacting with students from El Sistema’s community teaching centers, called nucleos.

The tour also dovetails with the Phil’s stepped-up outreach efforts toward L.A.’s vast Latino population, an effort that Dudamel personifies and champions.

Douglas McLennan, editor of the online arts digest ArtsJournal, said the Philharmonic is attempting “to figure out” and define “what the 21st-century orchestra ought to be, what it ought to sound like, and how it ought to behave.”


The tour also reflects the Phil’s desire to build its international brand recognition, capitalizing on the buzz that has surrounded Dudamel since before he took over the L.A. podium in fall 2009. Dudamel has evangelized for classical music not only as a popular art form but as a “human right,” through his appearances on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “Sesame Street” and last year’s Latin Grammy Awards telecast, where he conducted the show-opening number.

As Dudamel’s global exposure has grown, some music critics have weighed in with more skeptical and, occasionally, harsher assessments. The consensus around Dudamel-led tours of the Midwest, East Coast and Europe in the last two years was that, though the young maestro was capable of dazzling, he needed time to absorb and put his stamp on a wider repertoire.

But an article in the current issue of Newsweek, titled “Bravo, Gustavo! How Maestro Dudamel Is Saving Classical Music,” testifies to the continuing messianic expectations.

Last week, the L.A. Phil underscored its long-term investment in those goals and in its new, El Sistema-inspired teacher-training partnership with Bard College in upstate New York and the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass., by hosting a national symposium, “Take A Stand,” that drew scores.

The Caracas tour-concluding performance on Feb. 18 of Mahler 8 — known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” which both orchestras performed Saturday at the Shrine Auditorium — will be broadcast to more than 350 high-definition-equipped North American movie theaters as part of the orchestra’s year-old “L.A .Phil Live” project, hosted by actor John Lithgow, who is traveling with the orchestra in Venezuela. The tour also will yield a DVD and a Deutsche Grammophon CD recording, Borda said.

Jesse Rosen, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, described the convergence of Phil initiatives as “brilliant.”


“It’s very good planning, because the impact will be multiplied,” he said. “It’s not like they’re staging a bunch of high-profile events so they can get a lot of attention. These are organic events, they’re not for P.R. They emerge out of the natural evolution of their work.”