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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Peter Sellars on the Threat of Cultural Impositionalism

On the flight to London last week, Air New Zealand had loaded up a bunch of James Bond movies on the monitors in our seats. An appropriate gesture, I think, to get us in the mood for our final destination. Naturally, I got sucked in. I watched 007 besting bad guys all the way from Los Angeles, over Central Canada, past Greenland and Iceland, and into Her Majesty’s airspace.

In the arts world, if you want something shaken, not stirred, bring in Peter Sellars. That’s just what the LA Phil did for the world’s music educators during the recent symposium “Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century” at the Barbican Centre. Sellars is a natural pick for an orchestra which purports to be–and by all accounts is succeeding at being–a 21st Century Orchestra. (Not to mention, of course, his decades-long relationship with the LA Phil.)

The LA Phil’s President and CEO, Deborah Borda, has long recognized that the days of an orchestra existing solely to play music by dead white guys are over. An orchestra–any arts organization, really–must be a vibrant, relevant member of a community as that community exists in the present.

Enter Peter Sellars, who stood in front of a room full of people who work for arts organizations and told them, “Arts organizations are my favorite fascist structures.”

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Postcard from London: The Gospel Truth

Last year, at the world premiere of John Adams’ passion-oratorio “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” I wrote an extensive review. At the time, I said I was “less interested” in seeing how Peter Sellars would stage the work in the future, than I was simply excited to hear the music again. Turns out, I should have been more excited to see Sellars’ staging. It was vivid, yet minimal. It was transparent. And it helped connect the libretto together.

At the premiere a year ago, I wrote the audience retention rate at Walt Disney Concert Hall was about 70%. A year later, the work is a bit shorter (Adams cut some scenes), and Adams bumbed up some of the tempos. At the Barbican Centre Saturday night, the audience retention rate was close to 100%. (One couple near where I was sitting got up at a particularly conspicuous time and clattered out of the hall, never to return.)

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Postcard from London: Discover Dudamel

Yesterday was a moment several months in the making for the 10 traveling musicians from YOLA (Youth Orchestra LA). It’s why they wrote two essays, gave an interview, and played an audition just for the opportunity to come on this trip to London. Yesterday was the rehearsal and performance of the Discover Dudamel orchestra at the Barbican Centre, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel himself.

Dudamel bounded on stage, a bundle of energy even though he had just come from an interview that went late and had barely had time to grab a snack for lunch. He surveyed the large group of mostly high-school age kids, paused to count the number players in the flute section, “How many?” He asked. “Six flutes? I love this: Venezuelan-style,” referring to the giant orchestras of several hundred he has conducted countless times with El Sistema.

“Okay, let’s play,” Dudamel said quickly, and raised his arms for the downbeat of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy-Overture. But there was an impish look in his eye. He turned to the concertmaster and asked, “Romeo and Juliet?” She nodded. “Prokofiev, right?” Dudamel said. “No, Berlioz?” Giggling from the orchestra. “Oh…I remember,” Dudamel said, grinning. “Tchaikovsky.”


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Postcard from London: A Candy Conclave

In addition to the music-making here in London, the LA Phil is hosting a symposium about music education. They’ve put together an orchestra comprised of students from all over Great Britain, plus ten members of the LA Phil’s own Youth Orchestra LA—or YOLA. It’s called the Discover Dudamel Orchestra. Last night, the young musicians met one another for the first time. Later today, they’ll rehearse and perform with Gustavo Dudamel at the Barbican Centre.

So, naturally, the kids had to get to know each other very quickly. And they did so with the help of Skittles. The orchestra gathered in groups of 3-4, they were given a handful of Skittles, and depending on which colors they had, answered different questions about themselves.

Then, it was down to business. Rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet, which they’ll play for Gustavo Dudamel later this afternoon.

They sound pretty damn good, wouldn’t you say? And they can’t wait to meet Gustavo in a couple hours.

Postcard from London: The Music of the Future

On KUSC today, you’ll hear me mention an ensemble called Future Band. Future Band is a group of a couple dozen musicians, ages 8-14, from all over London. The ensemble has no set instrumentation, the members write their own music, and it is open to just about anyone. Future Band meets during school vacation periods for several days of intensive rehearsal…and they often perform here at the Barbican Centre. The philosophy is, basically, that creative expression in music should not be bound by the strict rules of one particular style of music.

Last night, Future Band performed at the symposium that the LA Phil and Barbican Centre are hosting called “Future Play: Music Systems in the 21st Century.” Here is a bit from that performance.

This morning, the always-provocative Peter Sellars spoke about activism in music education. I’ll have more thoughts from his talk later here on the blog, but just to whet your appetite, here are a couple quotes from Sellars today:

“Arts organizations are my favorite fascist structures. At a musuem, you see only what the curator wants you to see. An orchestra conductor only lets you hear what he wants you to hear. Nothing else. It’s exclusively top down.”

“Equality is not based in sameness. Equality can only exist in our differences.”

That’s vintage Peter Sellars.