Here’s the thing about Gustavo Dudamel…


I’ve never particularly cared for the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but for me it has only ever been the thing that happens in between the serene beauty of the slow movement and the Jaws-like introduction to the finale. The third movement is fine. I’ve just never loved it.

Until Sunday afternoon in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. That’s when the LA Phil (not necessarily known as a great Dvořák orchestra), conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (not necessarily know as a great Dvořák conductor), caused me to completely change my mind about the third movement of the New World Symphony. It was the final performance of the orchestra’s two-week, four-city Asia tour (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo) and maybe there was a little extra electricity on stage because the musicians would soon be Goin’ Home. Maybe morale was high because two days before, Gustavo Dudamel had surprised the orchestra with the announcement that he would be their music director through 2021-22–a contract extension of three additional years. Whatever the reason, on Sunday, the third movement sparkled and danced. I finally got it.

I think I also finally found an answer to a question about Gustavo Dudamel that we’ve been asking ever since he rose to prominence after winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Prize in Bamberg, Germany 11 years ago. The following year, Dudamel made his U.S. debut conducting the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl. A year after that came his debut in Walt Disney Concert Hall–a performance during which Esa-Pekka Salonen leaned over and whispered in Deborah Borda’s ear, “That’s the next music director of the LA Phil.” Borda went on a secret (now famous) series of scouting missions, attending Dudamel’s performances around the world.

One year later, on Monday, April 9, 2007, the announcement came: Esa-Pekka Salonen would step down as music director of the LA Phil and his successor would be the “up-and-comer” Gustavo Dudamel. I remember that day vividly: the press were gathered on stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Deborah Borda, Salonen, and Dudamel were there. Dudamel’s English was good, but not great, and he answered a lot of questions in Spanish. Rich Capparela–then of K-Mozart–got the laugh of the press conference when he directed a question to Esa-Pekka Salonen and asked if he would “please answer in Finnish.” The late, irascible but beloved critic Alan Rich chided LA Phil management for not giving former executive director Ernest Fleischmann enough credit for his role in the discovery of Gustavo Dudamel. (Fleischmann, along with Salonen, was on the jury of the Mahler competition in Bamberg.)

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As Gail Eichenthal and I roamed the stage afterwards, conducting one-on-one interviews for KUSC, the question everyone struggled to answer was this one: “What is it about his conducting that sets Gustavo Dudamel apart from others? What makes him so great?” Esa-Pekka Salonen fumbled with this question, comparing Dudamel to another young prodigious talent (Mozart) and also calling Dudamel “a conducting animal,” which was intended as a compliment, but still sounds strange eight years later. LA Phil violinist Mitch Newman talked about the instant chemistry the orchestra had with Dudamel and the ease of musical communication they had back-and-forth. Deborah Borda said hiring the then 26-year-old who hadn’t conducted a professional orchestra until winning that Mahler Prize three years prior wasn’t a risk because he had the right combination of charisma, passion, and deep musical knowledge. Most memorably, though, was Ernest Fleischmann’s answer to the “What makes Dudamel so great?” question. I can still hear his South African/British/German accent: “It’s difficult to say,” Fleischmann said, giving probably the most honest answer of the day.

Gustavo the Great

Indeed, it has been difficult to say what it is about Dudamel’s talent that is so special. Before his LA Phil tenure began, 60 Minutes ran a piece called Gustavo the Great which failed to answer the question why Gustavo is great. Dudamel’s first concert as LA Phil music director–¡Bienvenido Gustavo!, a free performance of Beethoven’s 9th at the Hollywood Bowl–was astonishing. A moment I’ll never forget. His first season was a honeymoon and Season 2 brought a maturation (sometimes painful) of his relationship with the LA Phil. The hiring was at first seen as a shrewd, brilliant move; then came the critical scrutiny. Hype, followed by backlash. (Before one of my interviews with a prominent conductor, his handlers told me explicitly: do *not* ask about Gustavo Dudamel–he does not like him, nor does he speak well of him.) It was like Trevor Noah, minus the racist/sexist Twitter jokes.

But even after critical equilibrium was attained, we still had no good answer for what makes Gustavo so great.

We tried. Some feeble attempts included:

  • His passion draws audiences into the performances
  • Exuberance, energy, excitement
  • He has a knack for orchestral coloring
  • A raw, unrefined approach to the music that brings out the essence of each score
  • He internalizes the music and recreates it so naturally

I’m guilty of employing (or deploying) all of these. In fairness, they are all *part* of the Gustavo Dudamel story, but not the whole story. Now, more than six years into his tenure as LA Philharmonic music director, I believe we are finally able to fully answer the question that initially stumped Deborah Borda, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ernest Fleischmann, 60 Minutes, and the rest of us.

The answer came Sunday afternoon at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall during the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. Whenever I hear a performance in which Dudamel conducts standard repertoire, invariably I hear something new in the piece. Something I hadn’t heard before. This happens without fail, every single time. I don’t always like what I hear (e.g.: Tchaikovsky’s 5th), but liking something or not liking something isn’t the point of great art. Great art is supposed to make you think.

During the concert Sunday afternoon I got to thinking about why I was suddenly connecting with the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I was hearing new things all over the place (counter-melodies in the 2nd violins/violas, for example, that you’d miss if they weren’t there, but in Dudamel’s hands, you hear how vital they actually are to the music as a whole). But it’s a bigger picture than that. The job of a conductor is to be a conduit from the composer to the orchestra. Together, the orchestra and conductor then communicate their vision of a composer’s work to the audience. Most conductors can do this some of the time. Great conductors have more consistent success.

Not long ago, I was talking with Dudamel about how he studies scores, and he told me about his work as a teenager with El Sistema founder, José Antonio Abreu. In their conducting lessons, Abreu would emphasize the importance of knowing every minute detail of a piece of music. One of Abreu’s favorite drills, Dudamel told me, was to give the young conductor a measure number or other starting point and ask various questions about what’s in the score without looking at the score. For example: in measure 238 of the second movement, Abreu would ask Dudamel, what is the dynamic in the double basses? Do the violas have a sforzando there or an accent? Ritard or rallentando? (There’s a difference, you know.) That’s the level at which Dudamel internalizes all music: Beethoven, Mahler, Adams, everyone.

This kind of musical digestion allows Dudamel to consistently communicate, then convince the orchestra to execute his vision while also remaining fully open and flexible to deviations from that vision in the moment. It’s a rarefied combination of planning, purpose, and spontaneity. A lot of conductors and orchestras get the planning and purpose part right, but fail in the spontaneity department. That is, after all, the most challenging part of music-making. Getting 100+ musicians and conductor to all think the same way and all respond in an instant is nearly impossible. But Dudamel and the LA Phil are showing that not only can it be done, it can be done with great consistency. As a result, with Dudamel at the helm of the LA Phil, we find ourselves connected to the composer in most direct way possible–almost as if we’re hanging out with Dvořák as he’s writing his symphony. It’s music-making of intense immediacy. This is where Dudamel’s greatness lies.

For the first time in my life, I totally enjoyed the third movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I may not have completely fallen in love with it forever. But thanks to Dudamel and the LA Phil, at least now I understand it more fully. Throughout his tenure with the LA Philharmonic, we have heard flashes of what the Dudamel-LA Phil chemistry could be. Now, six years in, I believe we’re entering the peak. With his recent contract extension, Dudamel has ensured his tenure in LA will be longer than Bernstein’s was with the New York Philharmonic. Lucky us.


Le “Sakura” du Printemps

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Were it not for sakura

in this world,

our hearts and minds

would not be so serene

and peaceful.

-Ariwara no Narihira (825-880 A.D.)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Tokyo right now. That fleeting moment that comes each spring when the cherry trees do their best cotton candy impersonation and the entire city comes out to party. Sakura. More than just a flower, it’s a state of mind.

When the sakura bloom, Tokyo–already one of the most beguiling cities in the world–is positively radiant. Not only are the views spectacular, but everyone’s spirits seem to sparkle as well. Along the pathways of Ueno Park, revelers stretch out tarps and gorge themselves in elaborate picnic feasts (hanami). It’s kind of like the Hollywood Bowl on steroids. (For a complete sensory experience, you can taste sakura too, in everything from condiments to fine dining to sakura-matcha Kit-Kat candy bars.) The lack of open container laws for alcoholic beverages make for a sake-fueled orgy of increasing boisterousness as the nights wear on.

And why not enjoy it to the fullest? Sakura is the very definition of ephemeral. After the opening of the first blossoms (kaika), full bloom (mankai) is usually reached within about one week. Another week later, the blooming peak is over and the blossoms fall from the trees. Everything is accelerated if there’s even a moderate amount of wind and rain during this time. Think about it this way: what if we only had sand at our Southern California beaches for one week out of the year?

Monday and Tuesday were the peak of sakura season this year in Tokyo. Lucky for the LA Phil and those of us traveling with the orchestra. Most of us headed out into the city to take in this very special event. We all took lots of photos. None of them do sakura justice.




Sakura is like a great musical performance. If you’re like me, you’ve got a running list of your Top 5 (or so) concerts that you’ve attended. Mine include a Guarneri String Quartet performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet…the first time I heard John Adams’ Harmonielehre (Atlanta Symphony/Robert Spano)…the Tallis Scholars singing Tallis in the lobby of the Bradbury Building…Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I added one to my list recently: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

These performances are moments that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Moments that occupy the tiniest sliver of a percentage of our existence on this planet. Their ephemeral nature enhances their impact. The idea that we, alongside a select group of people, experienced this amazing thing that was so powerful and revelatory and poignant and eloquent–and we’ll never experience in exactly the same way again–it’s our musical sakura.

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It’s special because it’s not permanent. Oh sure, we can try to document the experience. We can take photos under the trees and make live concert recordings, but the recreation of the thing pales in comparison to the actual thing itself.

This is where we can find ourselves in a bit of trouble. It’s 2015, and we live in a social media-obsessed world. I don’t have a problem with that. Social media is an effective communication tool for me, personally and professionally. Plus, I actually rather enjoy using social media to share my experiences and to discover what others are up to. But we also would do well to put the phone down every so often and just experience life, rather than documenting it for future mass consumption. It is possible to completely miss the impact of a moment while trying to capture it.

The moments that are most memorable in our lives are the ones we have been fully present for. The press of the Ueno Park crowds euphorically shuffling along bumping into one another all while engulfed in an archway of cherry blossoms. The spine-tingling, heart-stopping, earth-shattering final chord of Mahler 6 as it blows you back in your seat. It’s more than a flower…more than a collection of notes. It’s sakura. And when the moment is passed? As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”


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Familiar Digs; Family Forever

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The LA Phil wrapped up its Asia tour with two concerts in Suntory Hall in Tokyo. The stunning hall is tucked away in a labyrinth of office buildings, hotels, and the U-S embassy in the Minato district of Tokyo. It was the first hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and it was this hall that sealed the deal for the LA Phil to hire Toyota to design the acoustics for Walt Disney Concert Hall. So, for the LA Phil, Suntory is a home away from home.

The audience reception for Dudamel and the LA Phil was nothing short of amazing. After lengthy ovations (15+ minutes) at both performances, Dudamel took one final bow with the orchestra and then led Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour and the rest of the LA Phil off stage. But the ovation continued. For several minutes. And then this happened.

Both concerts here in Tokyo ended this way. (The ovations, by the way, were certainly well-deserved. I’ll write more about the performances in a future blog post, but suffice it to say, they made me extra glad Dudamel extended his contract with the LA Phil through 2021-22 and didn’t decide to jump ship to Berlin or New York.)


Earlier in the day today, members of YOLA and El Sistema Japan took the stage for a joint rehearsal and performance conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. This is something that has become a regular part of LA Phil tours in recent years (Boston last year and London the year before that). It’s part of the “social imperative” of music-making that LA Phil President/CEO Deborah Borda talks about: music as a way to cross cultural divides, bring people together, and create better citizens and human beings as a result.

El Sistema Japan was created in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. It was one of the first organizations to spring up in the efforts to rebuild. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. As far as “social imperatives” go, that’s about as elemental as you can get.

The students of El Sistema Japan come from all walks of life. Some lost family members in the tragedy. Everyone knows someone who lost an immediate family member. In the beginning, the music-making at El Sistema Japan was simply a way to get parents–who were understandably still fearful of radiation poisoning long after the danger had passed–to let their children leave their houses. The town was stuck in isolation. Their physical community had been destroyed, but through music, they began to rebuild their human community.

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It was with open arms that El Sistema Japan welcomed the musicians of YOLA. There was a slight age difference–El Sistema Japan students ranged in age from 7-14; YOLA students from 13-18. But within a few hours of rehearsing together, and despite the language challenges, friendships were formed.

“I definitely believe music can connect anyone in this world,” Macy, a 13-year-old YOLA trombonist, told me.

Elsewhere, you might be tempted call shenanigans on this kind of naive-sounding optimism. But you can genuinely hear it when you listen to YOLA and El Sistema Japan play together.

In his press conference with the Tokyo media yesterday, Gustavo Dudamel said, “The mission of El Sistema is not to make musicians out of young people, but to give them access to beauty. … When you give young musicians difficult and complex music, through that challenge, you are building a better human being.”

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In just two short days (well, long days, actually, which were jam-packed with rehearsals and other events), two orchestras came together as one. A 17-year-old from South LA became friends with a 13-year-old from 5,337 miles away in Soma, Fukushima. The students from El Sistema Japan learned about life in Los Angeles. The YOLA musicians came to understand more fully the resiliency of the human spirit.

They traveled together from Fukushima to Tokyo. They played the same stage as the LA Phil together. They worked their tails off for Gustavo Dudamel, who at one point in the rehearsal apologized and said, “I’m such a pain sometimes.”

Afterwards, there were hugs and tears and exchanges of gifts and contact information. The physical distance between El Sistema Japan and YOLA may be great and the language may not share even the same alphabet, but make no mistake, these young musicians are family now.

That’s the power of music.

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After the Tsunami: They Left and They’re Not Coming Back

Abandoned 6No one lives in Odaka City. More than 13,000 people used to. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami and subsequent meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, everyone was forced to leave. After the earthquake, residents were given two hours to collect their most precious belongings and head for high ground before the inevitable arrival of the tsunami.

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Four years later, after extensive efforts to clean up contaminated debris and soil (five centimeters of topsoil had to be scraped from the ground to rid the dirt of as much radiation as possible), Odaka City is still uninhabitable. There is no electricity in the city and no running water–it wouldn’t be clean enough to use anyway. Former residents and others can visit, but must leave by 5:00 p.m. every day. Officials expect the town to be ready for people to live here once again by April, 2016, but only 20% of Odaka City’s residents say they plan to return.

Humanity 2

If it’s possible to see the absence of something, you see it here. More powerfully, you hear it: silence. Standing in the middle of what was once a busy residential street, you hear nothing. No kids playing in their yards, no weedwhackers, no car horns. No golfers teeing it up at the driving range in the center of town. Instead, the large open space has been converted into a holding ground for dozens of large bags of contaminated soil. (When you remove five centimeters of soil from everywhere, where do you put it? That’s one of the great challenges facing cleanup workers.)

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Absence, abandonment, silence. It’s palpable here. Strangely too, there’s also a sense of action. Because this is a place where, all of a sudden, in an instant, people abruptly left their lives in the middle of the day. Calendars hanging on the walls of abandoned houses are still turned to March, 2011.

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Nowhere is this sense of action/abandonment more apparent than at the town train station, where rows and rows of bicycles still sit in the racks where their owners left them four years ago. Residents of this town rode to the station, locked up their bikes, and headed off to work or school and never came back.

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It’s difficult to come to terms with what happened–and what is still happening–here. Even more difficult to describe it. You feel it. The 24-hour news networks packed up and left long ago. They’re off to chase missing planes and moralize about what protestors should and shouldn’t do. But for the people of this region, life will never move on. This is life now. The world just isn’t paying attention anymore.

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YOLA in Japan: Tokyo –> Fukushima

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It’s kind of a chaperone’s worst nightmare—Tokyo Station at morning rush hour. Three rail companies and 14 different lines converge on this central station hauling more than 400-thousand commuters through here every single day. And today, among the throngs: 15 young musicians of YOLA.

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I’m happy to report that no one got lost or separated in the madness and we all managed to squeeze aboard our scheduled high-speed bullet train, or Shinkansen, headed to Fukushima Prefecture and eventually the city of Soma—an area hit hard four years ago in the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

It takes 78 minutes to ride the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Fukushima. 182 miles; 78 minutes. It’s enough to make us Californians ponder the what ifs of that LA to San Francisco bullet train that has been in the “proposed” stage for how many years now? The YOLA musicians certainly dug it.

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I sat across from clarinetist extraordinaire, Edson, who determined that when he couldn’t see anything more than just a blur, we were going fast enough. And when that happened, he pulled out his score to the Weber Clarinet Concertino and practiced his fingerings.

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In the seat next to him, YOLA conductor Juan Felipe Molano practiced his rehearsal Japanese vocabulary in preparation for his work with El Sistema Japan and YOLA musicians later that day.

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That’s El Sistema Japan’s Toru Amijima helping Molano learn how to say things like: “Four measures before C” or “Violins, play this at the tip of your bows.”

78 minutes of glassy-smooth high-speed rail goodness and upon our arrival in Fukushima the first thing we were handed was a 20-page booklet detailing the extensive and, so far, remarkably successful radiation cleanup efforts.

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This was our reading material on our twisty bus ride over the mountain from Fukushima to the city of Soma, just inland from the Pacific Coast. The town of 35-thousand residents is well outside the 20 kilometer exclusion zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, but is still very much in the rebuilding phase. For example, lunch came at a restaurant that was housed in one of hundreds of temporary structures that make up a large portion of the town.

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Local food and tap water, we have been assured, is completely safe to eat and drink; so local fish, salad, miso soup, and green tea it was for lunch. And it was delicious! (Though not everyone was a fan of the raw squid in liver sauce, pickled seaweed, and pickled Japanese cucumber that served as appetizers.)

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Lunch over, we headed to the newly-rebuilt Municipal Concert Hall in Soma. The original hall, which was more than 100 years old, was damaged irreparably during the earthquake, so this new one was built in its place and has become the home for El Sistema Japan.

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In the aftermath of the disaster in 2011, one of the first things to spring up in the efforts to rebuild this area was El Sistema Japan. The community has said the music-making of El Sistema Japan helped them to heal emotionally before it was even possible to rebuild their lives physically. YOLA is the first El Sistema-inspired program to bring young musicians to Soma to play side-by-side with the kids of El Sistema Japan.

First, some introductions. For which, the YOLA students learned a bit of Japanese.

Then, it was down to the business of rehearsing. They play a concert in Soma Friday night before heading to Tokyo on Saturday for an open rehearsal and performance at Suntory Hall with Gustavo Dudamel.

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After rehearsals, the students of El Sistema Japan and YOLA gathered in the main concert hall for a cultural exchange program. The hosts sang some traditional Japanese songs…including this little number about candy and bubble gum.

The YOLA musicians performed too. Here’s the last couple minutes of Danzon No. 2, by Arturo Marquez.

After the performances, they all had bento together for dinner and took selfies with their new friends.

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A Hard Day’s Day

Yesterday was a 28-30 hour day for most of the young musicians of YOLA. It started like any normal Tuesday–Karen, a 16-year-old YOLA cellist told me she got up early like she always does and drove her brother to school–but then things changed in a hurry. At Walt Disney Concert Hall, the YOLA musicians were feted with an official proclamation from LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.


Photo: Leni Boorstin


Photo: Leni Boorstin

The proclamation reads: “On your selection as a member of the Los Angeles tour to Asia, and in recognition of your outstanding hard work and dedication to excellence, you are hereby highly commended by the Board of Supervisors, County Los Angeles.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti also sent each of the students a letter:

“Dear ____,

Congratulations on being selected to represent Los Angeles and perform with the newly formed Japanese youth orchestra in collaboration with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the famed El Sistema program. This opportunity to represent the City of Los Angeles and Youth Orchestra Los Angeles is a testament to your hard work and dedication. I send my best wishes for a memorable trip and continued success.


Eric Garcetti, Mayor”

With political kudos (and, of course, their instruments) in hand, the students headed for LAX and their 12-hour flight to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Naturally, upon landing in Tokyo, they were euphoric, delirious, and more than a little wiped out.


Photo: Gretchen Nielsen

You see mostly the euphoria in this photo, but on tomorrow’s Postcard from Japan (8a, 1p, and 5:58p on Classical KUSC), I’ll tell you how the students are dealing with jet lag…and the language barrier as they prepare to meet the young Japanese musicians of El Sistema later today.

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YOLA in (Little) Tokyo

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Today, 15 talented young musicians—ages 13 to 17—from the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) program will arrive in Tokyo, Japan. The students are traveling in conjunction with the LA Phil’s own Asian tour…and will be meeting up with their youth orchestra counterparts in El Sistema Japan to rehearse and perform together before playing for Gustavo Dudamel and a big audience in Tokyo in a few days.

The students who were selected for this trip had to endure a rigorous application process, which included an audition and a written essay. There were fun parts of the travel preparation process too, though. Like a few days ago, when they headed Little Tokyo  for a taste of Japanese culture and history at the Japanese American National Museum…and then a literal taste of some Japanese food at a nearby noodle shop.

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Megumi Smith, one of YOLA’s teaching artists, taught the students how to say bon appétit…and the proper way to slurp their noodles. Then, back to the classroom for more language practice, a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and an origami folding lesson.

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When they meet later this week, the YOLA musicians will present a curtain of 500 origami cranes to the El Sistema Japan youth orchestra.