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Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel raises funds for youth orchestra

Susan Saccoccia | 3/27/2014, 6 a.m.
At its fundraiser for programs to advance social change through music, the Cambridge-based Longy School of Music at Bard College ...
Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducts Longy’s Side by Side Orchestra in an open rehearsal at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. David Green

At its fundraiser for programs to advance social change through music, the Cambridge-based Longy School of Music at Bard College chose to present an open rehearsal rather than a polished production.

Yet the Saturday event at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium was as stirring as a formal concert.

Conducting the rehearsal was Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and an alumnus of Venezuela’s national youth orchestra movement, El Sistema — the program that inspires Longy’s initiatives to educate musicians as agents of change.

Economist and composer José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema in 1975, envisioning music as a vehicle for personal and community transformation. Reaching the country’s poorest neighborhoods, El Sistema today serves more than 300,000 children a year through its network of local orchestras. Each is a micro-community that nurtures life skills in children from ages 6 to 18 while immersing them in the joy, discipline and grandeur of ensemble musicianship.

As he conducted Longy’s Side by Side Orchestra, composed of local children and their Longy mentors, Dudamel demonstrated the sense of play, as well as respect, for both children and music that are integral to El Sistema.

Wearing black Side by Side T-shirts and black pants, the 60-strong ensemble featured 30 children from El Sistema-inspired programs. These young musicians came from Conservatory Lab Charter School, Josiah Quincy School, Margarita Muniz Academy, Boston String Academy, El Sistema Somerville and Kids 4 Harmony, a program in Pittsfield, Mass.

Fanned out before Dudamel on stage in symphony formation, the well-trained children shared music stands with graduate students from the Longy Conservatory Orchestra and a cohort of 10 visiting musicians from Youth Orchestra LA, an El Sistema program of the LA Philharmonic.

Buzzing with joyful anticipation, the packed hall included tots with their parents, boisterous teenagers, grey-haired academics, and leaders of Boston musical institutions.

After introductions by Karen Zorn, Longy’s president, and Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the LA Philharmonic, maestro Dudamel strode to the podium and doffed his jacket. In a short-sleeved black shirt and navy pants, he started by joking a bit. “What do you want to play?” he asked. “I will follow you.”

In fact, the children had prepared for months to tackle passages from two 19th century masterpieces, “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2” by George Bizet; and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Opus 64.”. The latter was one of the works that Dudamel would conduct the next day with the LA Philharmonic for its Celebrity Series of Boston performance at Symphony Hall.

Enveloping the young musicians in his warmth and charisma, Dudamel guided them in bringing the scores to life. In a series of starts and stops, he let them perform a passage and then, after coaching, let them try it again.

Using his arms and hands rather than a baton, he led the orchestra through the opening strains of a dramatic and forceful passage. They played it with the gusto of a parade band while also conveying a hint of its yearning undertone.

Dudamel interrupted the music, urging the players to communicate the “two characters” of the Bizet piece, which combines a triumphant royal procession with the tender outreach of a hopeful young lover. Speaking of the composer, Dudamel said, “He’s a Frenchman. It is elegant.”