Their bags packed with flutes, violas and other instruments, several teenagers from Los Angeles County’s Second District ventured far away from home in March to make music – and to make friends – in Japan.
All are students of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), a program led by Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel to provide free musical training, instruments and academic support to those ages 6-17 who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.
Bianca, a 16-year old violinist with YOLA at EXPO, based at Exposition Park in South Los Angeles, was eager to harmonize with fellow musicians her age from the other side of the world.
“Music has the ability to transcend barriers in order to bring together people of all different socio-economic backgrounds,” she said.
Kevin, a 13-year-old who plays the tuba, was eager to broaden his horizons while honing his musical skills at YOLA at HOLA, the nonprofit organization Heart of Los Angeles in the Rampart District.
“YOLA… not only gave me important life skills that helped me, but also helped me befriend people that I might not have even realized existed on this planet,” he said.
Bianca and Kevin were among 15 YOLA students ages 13-17 who traveled to Tokyo and Soma in the Fukushima Prefecture from March 24-30 to meet young Japanese musicians training under El Sistema Japan, which is based on the famous musical education program in Venezuela where Mr. Dudamel trained as a child.
Before their trip, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas gave each of the students a commendation.
“I congratulate these young musicians for their outstanding hard work and dedication to excellence,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said.
YOLA Manager Rebecca Sigel said the American and Japanese teenagers should be able to find common ground not only in the music they play but also in their coming-of-age struggles and triumphs.
She said many of the Japanese students began to play instruments in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that devastated their coastal city. As a tribute to them, YOLA performed Mozart’s Ave Veram Corpus, which Sigel described as “a piece about creating something beautiful in the aftermath of loss.” She added it was El Sistema Japan’s unofficial anthem.
“Our students have struggles and successes here in Los Angeles – for some, there are more struggles than successes – but that’s going to be the case for students in Fukushima too, only in a completely different context,” Sigel said. “The music is going to be the thing that joins them.”
The trip was held in conjunction with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Asia Tour, and Mr. Dudamel rehearsed with the students.
Aside from rehearsals and concerts, the itinerary for the YOLA students’ almost week-long visit to Japan included cultural exchanges and sightseeing tours. To prepare for their 8,000-mile journey, they visited Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles to learn about Japanese culture, customs and traditions, including the tea ceremony and origami.
The students made paper cranes, strung them together, and gave them as gifts to their hosts in Japan as a symbol of happiness, peace and long life. But for Daniel, a 17-year-old flutist with YOLA at EXPO, the tour itself was a gift.
“What YOLA has taught me is that young people everywhere are ready to explode with a creative potential that they might not even know is in them,” Daniel said. “By giving them something into which to channel that magma of creativity out of their cores, you can unleash an ambition-chasing initiative from within that will carry them far in life.”
YOLA currently trains about 600 students in three locations: YOLA, HOLA and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Those bound for Japan underwent a rigorous selection process similar to a college application. YOLA previously sent delegations to Boston, where students met the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and to London, where they performed Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture.