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.)

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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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