With Dudamel, Sistema and Longy are a match made for music
El Sistema, Venezuela’s expansive socially-minded community music program, has spread well beyond its country of origin over the past decade. Its biggest proponent and most visible graduate is Gustavo Dudamel, the young, energetic conductor of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Last Saturday afternoon in the official launch of Longy Conservatory’s Sistema Side by Side series at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, Dudamel led a combined rehearsal that brought together sixty young musicians from all around Massachusetts, ten members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, and students from Longy Conservatory.
“The rehearsal with Dudamel is a pretty incredible opportunity for these students,” said Longy president Karen Zorn in a statement.
“As we consider what the shaping of musicians in symphony orchestras in the United States will be, we’ve got to find intersections between music and social programs,” LA Philharmonic president Deborah Borda told the crowd packed into the auditorium. “This is the future, and if you really think about it like that, it’s a bright one.”
With eight programs established in the city, Boston has become a hub for El Sistema in the United States.
Longy Conservatory is in the vanguard. Several times a year, young instrumentalists from all around Massachusetts, many from poor and underserved communities, come together for rehearsals at Longy. The conservatory students who play along in the orchestra, called Sistema Side by Side, act as mentors.
Their performances feature renowned conductors. This past February, Leon Botstein led the combined ensemble in music by Beethoven and Bizet as part of Longy Conservatory Orchestra’s concert at Sanders Theatre.
Saturday’s open rehearsal featured excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, a specialty of Dudamel’s. The conductor has led the work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in its current multi-city tour, and conducted the piece along with Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 in a Celebrity Series concert at Symphony Hall on Sunday.
The Sistema orchestra responded well to the conductor’s grand gestures. But he wanted a richer, singing tone from the musicians for the opening bars.
“I sing in the shower to find the character of the music,” he said during a pause.
While pretending to wash his arms, he sang a flat, soupy phrase. “No, not like that.”
After singing another with more warmth and definition, he said, “This is the sound that I want.”
For the other work on the program, an arrangement of Bizet’s Farandole, the conductor joked to the musicians, “I will follow you.”
After a run through, he dug into the details. The stately opening, he said, should not be played too quickly.
“French music has to be elegant in a way,” he told the students. “[This opening] is like a tall ballerina with very, very long legs.” The ensuing Allegro, on the other hand, should have the character of a shorter, sprightlier dancer.
After a few bars, the conductor stopped the orchestra. “That’s my job to find the problem,” he said. “If there are no problems, I have to create the problems.”
He asked for sharper articulation, and as the musicians played through Bizet’s chirping phrases again, one could hear the lines fitting snugly into place.
Following the rehearsal, Karen Zorn presented Dudamel with the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor the Bernstein family established through Longy in 2000.
“When I saw Gustavo conduct, I recognized this energy and precision of expression,” said Jamie Bernstein, narrator, writer, and daughter of the legendary and exuberant conductor Leonard Bernstein. “I had seen all this before.”
She went on the say that if her father were still alive, he would have embraced El Sistema wholeheartedly.
“We try to do our best through music to bring hope, harmony, and love,” Dudamel said. “I’m not a creator of Sistema, I am a son of Sistema.”
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