Inspired by Gustavo Dudamel,
L.A. Phil’s Youth Orchestra wins over skeptics

By Jeffrey Fleishman


Vivian Trejo practices the French horn beyond a row of bodegas on a broken street. She opens her score sheet. A boy hollers in the alley, a plane skims the haze outside her window. She presses her lips to a silver mouthpiece, blows through coiled steel and imagines, depending on the music, walking in a field or wandering through a war.

“Music lets you escape,” said, Vivian, 13, who lives with her Guatemalan-born parents in a small apartment near downtown L.A. “I was scared I wasn’t meant to be with this instrument. I failed at many things. In dance, I couldn’t get my position right. In theater, I was the shy one, scared of the stage. But in the orchestra you can blend in with everyone else.”

Vivian Trejo, a 13-year-old French horn player, has won a scholarship to the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Vivian plays for hours at a time, smoothing out unruly notes through afternoons and evenings. A member of the young musicians program known as Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA, she embodies the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s most significant attempt to reach younger, more diverse audiences in a county that is about 50% Latino.

The program offers free instruments and years of musical training to mostly underprivileged children, with the aim that it will help them achieve success, and that many may eventually become supporters of classical music.

YOLA was modeled after El Sistema, the Venezuelan program that sponsors more than 100 orchestras and has taught hundreds of thousands of students. The Phil’s leaders launched the program in part to help persuade Gustavo Dudamel to sign on as conductor. Eight years later, it has become central to the L.A. Phil’s community outreach efforts — and a model for similar programs nationwide.

Today, El Sistema-inspired programs reach more than 10,000 students in communities across America. The Phil is working with the Longy School of Music of Bard College, the Aspen Music Festival and School and other institutions to unify the programs to include regional youth orchestra camps by 2016. The effort will culminate in 2017 with a youth orchestra that will perform with Dudamel.

Gustavo Dudamel leads Youth Orchestra Los Angeles in a performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 10, 2014. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Some members of the Phil’s board of directors were initially skeptical about taking on YOLA. “It’s like adopting a puppy,” said David C. Bohnett, board chairman from 2008 to 2013. "You have it for a long time.” The L.A. Phil’s leaders were forced to consider whether YOLA was part of the orchestra’s mission, recalled current board Chairman Diane B. Paul. “Is this really what we do? Do we have a social responsibility like this? But the misgivings fell away, and there was a consensus that we needed to reach out to a diverse community,” she said.

YOLA is part of the Phil’s $5-million budget for youth education, which also provides free concerts for school-age children at Disney Hall and a music and fine arts activities program at the Hollywood Bowl. The Phil would not break out the YOLA program costs.

More than 700 students are enrolled and 400 are on waiting lists at YOLA’s three sites: The program partners with the Harmony Project in the Expo Center near USC, the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts on the Cal State L.A. campus and the Heart of Los Angeles community youth center at Lafayette Park in the Westlake district, where Vivian is enrolled. The programs at each location share management and expenses with the Phil and have ensembles that feed into a central orchestra.

“Our children live with the fear of gang violence, homelessness, no job opportunities,” said Ariadna Sanchez, who followed her husband, a teacher, from Mexico to Los Angeles a decade ago. Her sons are enrolled in YOLA’s program with the Heart of Los Angeles. Carlos, 10, plays violin and Mateo, 7, viola.

“If we want a better future for our children, we have to go outside our communities,” she said. “Music should not only be for the upper class. My son [Carlos] started playing 'Old McDonald Had a Farm' very roughly. Now, he plays classical music.”

Gustavo Dudamel poses for pictures with Expo Center Youth Orchestra members at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 1, 2009. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The program stresses discipline and community development and teaches children to read musical scores. All participants attend at least one Phil concert a year, and the most experienced orchestra members perform under Dudamel’s baton on the Disney Hall stage. The gifted among them, some coached by volunteer Phil musicians, are encouraged toward further training.

Vivian won a scholarship to the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles, one of the nation’s top conservatories. YOLA has helped its alumni get into college, including Rodas Hailu, 18, a violinist whose father escaped the Ethiopian civil war, and Isaac Green, 18, a willowy bass player with a cloud-like Afro who can shift from jazz to Motown to Beethoven while riffing after school.

“When you give an instrument to a young boy or a young girl, they are building their world with that instrument. It is amazing how their lives can change,” said Dudamel, who began conducting when he was 12.

In a rehearsal with YOLA’s main orchestra last spring, Dudamel lifted his baton. A solo clarinet wavered and found its voice; a stage crowded with musicians, including Hailu and Green, played a piece by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. Dudamel told the orchestra that the music must pulse with the sensuousness of a Latin dancer. He swiveled his hips. The musicians laughed.

The orchestra picked up the tempo. “Not too fast,” said Dudamel, at once teacher and conspirator. “It’s beautiful. I love, but don’t rush. I need you to be precise.... Don’t feel afraid. Play, play, play.”

Completed by music

Rodas Hailu rehearses at the Expo Center as an 11-year-old in 2008, top. Hailu, rehearsing in 2014, says being part of YOLA is “like breathing.” (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Hailu signed up for violin with the Harmony Project when she was 9. The first piece she played was “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” She moved on to Prokofiev, who she described as “heavy and dark,” and Beethoven, who she said was “ominous.”

Her Ethiopian-born parents, both card dealers at a casino near Downey, encouraged her musical ambitions. “My father’s life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to be,” she said. “Failure after failure. He was badly hurt in a car accident. I don’t judge anymore.... There’s always a story behind somebody’s life.”

Music has become a way to put her own life in perspective. A perfectionist with a soft voice upon which glides sly humor, Hailu, now a freshman at Grinnell College in Iowa, is blunt about her playing: “I need to work on my sound. Sometimes, I come across as timid and quiet. That reflects my personality. I feel the passion, but I’m embarrassed to move. I have long arms with no meat on them. I feel awkward … naked and exposed.”

Hailu practiced hard and became the orchestra’s concertmaster. “When you're given something interesting, you put your heart and soul into it,” she said. “But I won’t be a professional violinist. I won’t be that good.”

One day at the Expo Center, Hailu sat in an empty music room near an upright piano. She said she liked to be alone “to decipher who I am” and she talked about films most of her peers had probably never heard of, including “The Past” by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. The sound of a woodwind drifted down the hall. A boy with a violin case hurried past. Then another.

“I had a hard time with my bow hand,” she said. “I held it the wrong way and didn’t really feel comfortable with it until about two years ago.” She rose to leave; she has known these halls and recital rooms, the scents of wood and paint, since she was a child. “It’s a part of my life,” she said. “It’s like breathing.”

Romantic influence

Isaac Green rehearses for YOLA in 2009 when he was 12, top. Green, right, plays the bass during a 2014 rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

In a white-curtained living room in South Los Angeles, Green played bass amid the distant thrum of a lawn mower. Wrists and fingers fluid, he squinted and summoned Beethoven. “I’m more of a Romantic period kind of guy,” he said. “I like modern stuff, but some of it’s too experimental. It doesn’t have swell and feeling.”

Before he discovered the Romantics, Green was into the video game “Guitar Hero.” He dabbled in saxophone and clarinet, but by seventh grade he had taken to the classical double bass and joined the orchestra “to be a small piece of that puzzle that makes beautiful music.”

The son of an oil refinery worker and an elementary school teacher, he attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts while also playing in YOLA.

Green is a synthesizer, who, like his bass, pulls people together with music. He and the YOLA orchestra have played at the Hollywood Bowl with popular entertainers, including Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan. “Without this [YOLA] program I don’t see that he'd be the same person,” said his mother, Nancy Shay-Green. “His eyes have been opened. I think he sees his place in the world. Not just in music but beyond it.”

When asked a question, Green often goes quiet for a moment and answers in colorful riffs, such as when comparing great composers. “Mahler, depressing,” he said. “Beethoven’s memorable; his melodies will live forever. Mozart, joyous, yes … but sometimes boring.” He thinks about writing music for video games — but “when it comes to composing,” he said, “I’m slightly scatterbrained, melodies colliding.”

Green was accepted into the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. His parents couldn’t afford the tuition, and he enrolled at Cal State Northridge. He wants to be a teacher. When asked about playing in a professional orchestra such as the L.A. Phil, Green, bass resting against his shoulder and music sheet spread before him, hesitated.

“I could only hope to be that great,” he said. Sometimes, though, when he’s practicing with the windows open, neighbors will walk by and holler, "Hey, man, keep it up.”

A family’s inspiration

Vivian Trejo practices the French horn at home in Los Angeles. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

A breeze rustled the score as Vivian Trejo lifted her French horn and played a waltz in her family’s apartment. Outside the sliding glass door and down a small hill, tattooed men walked past bodegas and a mural of the Virgin Mary.

“When Vivian first started playing, the people around here were puzzled,” said her mother, Viviana. “They thought she was playing mariachi music. But now they know a girl from this neighborhood plays on the same stage as the Philharmonic.”

Vivian was born in Guatemala, and when she was 2 her family came to the U.S. on vacation and never returned home. Juan Carlos, a valet in the South Bay; and Viviana, a stay-at-home mom, have tried to keep Vivian and her brother Esteban, 7, who plays violin in YOLA, away from crime and gang activity. “Two people were killed in front of our building,” said Viviana. “But it’s been better since they opened the Rampart police station.”

Vivian’s family here and in Guatemala follow her career. She has inspired her cousins to take up instruments; a framed picture of her playing at the Hollywood Bowl hangs on the wall. She parts her hair to the side and wears dark-framed glasses. She doesn’t like attention. At the Colburn School, she has entered a classical musical world dominated by whites and Asians. She said she is not deterred.

“I feel like I belong here,” she said. “Many people think Latinos don’t belong, that they don’t have talent. But the students at Colburn are really nice. There are some other Latinos there too.”


She and her mother sat on the couch and told of the day — before she started playing an instrument — when Vivian went on a third-grade field trip to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Vivian stood outside. It looked like a silver ship, maybe a strange bird. “I wanted to see inside to see what this thing was,” she said.

Vivian paged through score sheets. She pressed her lips to the mouthpiece. Her parents watched. Her brother too. The music drifted out the door and floated past ragged balconies and broken rooftops toward the sea.

Video Credits: Creative Director: Myung J. Chun.

Additional Credits: Digital Producer and Developer: Evan Wagstaff. Digital Design Director: Stephanie Ferrell. Lily Mihalik contributed to this project. Lead photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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