Gustavo Dudamel works with L.A. youth

Conductor takes note from Venezuela's El Sistema

As Gustavo Dudamel tried to coax more force from children playing Beethoven, the young Venezuelan conductor resorted to an original tool: his hair.

"Do you remember the hair movement? It is very important!" Dudamel told the children from rough South Los Angeles, his head of thick, springy curls bobbing to make the point.

Who knew a classical music rehearsal could be so much fun?

Well, anyone who has worked with the 27-year-old Dudamel. He is the toast of the classical music world and is preparing to take over one of the world's top orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, next year. A big part of his new job will be working with inner-city youth.

With Dudamel, the LA Phil gets not only a highly acclaimed conductor but also the experience of someone raised in El Sistema, Venezuela's lauded music-school network that has helped thousands of children steer clear of violence and drugs in underprivileged neighborhoods.

As the LA Phil began to court Dudamel two years ago, president Deborah Borda went to Venezuela to study El Sistema and see how it could be applied in the second-largest U.S. city, a place of great wealth but also rampant gang violence.

Although El Sistema has 300,000 children in its schools, Borda said she was encouraged to start small. The LA Phil plans to create three to five youth orchestras under Dudamel's tutelage.

The maiden project, the Expo Center Youth Orchestra, met him this past weekend for the first time. The mostly black and Latino children have signed a contract to take care of their free instruments, practice and attend lessons.

Together, they tackled Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" and the children's favorite, "Can Can" by Offenbach. Eager to please the maestro, the children also played "Venezuela," a difficult piece.

Despite some off-notes and faltering tempos, Dudamel was encouraging throughout, pushing the LA Phil benefactors in the room to tears. One was heard saying, "He's the Obama of music," referring to the U.S. president-elect.

"You remind me of my beginnings when I was playing in the orchestra in my town, a small orchestra in a small place, trying to ... be a wonderful musician," Dudamel told the inner-city children at the end of rehearsal.

Dudamel started playing violin at 10, joined El Sistema and by 18 was Venezuela's national youth orchestra director. In 2004, he made international headlines by winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize.

Dudamel believes that playing in a youth orchestra makes better citizens of its members because it forces them to work with as many as 100 other musicians and be part of a community.

"Music is a tool of social change, like it has been in Venezuela," he told reporters. "In music, there is no room for racial and class differences. The only thing that exists is a goal, to make music together and enjoy."

Not all of the children will become professional musicians, but Dudamel said an important by-product is building a new audience for classical music, long associated with well-heeled elites.

To make the point, he invited the children to rehearse next time at the LA Phil's modern venue, Walt Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles.

As it turns out, Dudamel is the same fun man with the children as he is with veteran musicians at the Walt Disney hall.

Borda said a LA Phil violinist watching Dudamel with the youth orchestra commented, "He rehearses it exactly as he rehearses the Los Angeles Philharmonic."