Audiences at Tokyo’s elegant Suntory Hall aren't used to seeing a world-class conductor take the stage in a T-shirt and sneakers.
But that’s what they got Sunday morning, when L.A. Philharmonic music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel led a public rehearsal for an orchestra of 15 Los Angeles teenagers and 58 young musicians from Soma, a town in Japan’s devastated Fukushima region. On the program: the fourth movement of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony.
Things got off to a bit of a slow start, forcing Dudamel to remind his musicians: "Think in the way you want to project the sound. Because it’s not this kind of pah. Breathe. It's very noble."
Dudamel was wearing a microphone, so the audience could hear him urging and cajoling the young musicians through an initial run-through of the piece. To get cellists to play one passage in a lyrical, flowing style called cantabile, he asked them to sing the music: "Without the notes. One, two ... [sings]. You have to play how you sing. So you have to use more bow and be more cantabile."
Dudamel told the musicians to think of one section featuring trumpets and cellos as an active dialogue between the instruments, though the dialogue wasn't necessarily a polite one. Dudamel was demanding and precise, but at the same time warm and funny. He even had fun with the Japanese translator, encouraging her to sing some of the piece.
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla is the L.A. Philharmonic’s assistant conductor. She watched the rehearsal and said: "Think of how smart and how creative that is that he let her sing and let the kids in the viola section and in the whole orchestra listen to that, how she can do it as well."
Grazinyte-Tyla says a conductor’s ultimate job is to communicate with the orchestra using whatever tools he can find — it may be just be a quick glance or body language, invisible to the audience.
Ariana Ghez, who plays principal oboe with the Phil, knows just what Dudamel or guest conductors are telling her. "They just look at me and they gesture, and I can understand what they want and I can do it," she said. "Then they can communicate back that I did what they wanted, and it all takes place in a matter of seconds."
Thomas Hooten plays principal trumpet with the Philharmonic, and he's gotten used to reading Dudamel's body language as well. He explained: "There's this amazing part of Mahler's Sixth Symphony [one of the pieces the orchestra performed on this tour] where the trumpets bring the orchestra to a climax, and Dudamel looks back at me and he kind of throws his chin up. Without a doubt, he’s saying, This is a triumphal moment. That is just inspiring when you have that kind of nonverbal communication."
Dudamel pushed the combined youth orchestras from L. A. and Fukushima as the music galloped to a finish, which received rapturous applause from the audience. Kevin Im, a tuba player with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, said his first thought was: "Wow, they’re applauding for us for such a long time."
Other YOLA members shared his feelings of shock. Flutist Daniel Egwurube said, "I never thought music would take me to Japan. I never thought music would take me anywhere close to where it’s taken me now. All I can think about is just, wow."
What was it like being guided by Gustavo Dudamel? Daniel remembered feeling like "There’s just a light that spreads out from him, and he just wants you to do well. You can sense that." Samantha Rosas, who plays the viola, said that Dudamel "just gives off really great energy and it’s really fun to play with him."
And for the young Japanese musicians who hadn't worked with Dudamel before, what was it like to make adjustments instantly? A translator for cellist Nina Satoh said: "When she focuses on the bow, she forgets the fingers. And when she concentrates on the fingers, she forgets the bow."
But clarinetist Edson Natareno had it worse — he had gastritis and almost had to miss the concert. "Right in the very beginning I thought I was going to pass out," Natarano said. "It was scary. I was thinking, Are they going to stop this entire thing for me? Thankfully I made it through and I’m standing tall."
Yohai Asaoka, the conductor for El Sistema Japan, said he’s proud of his group, which includes children as young as seven. And he had some considered praise for Dudamel. "[He] talks from his heart," Asaola said. "So honest. There is no lie. There are so many good conductors, but he is special."