Arts & Entertainment

Ahead of first tour, Youth Orchestra LA turns on the drama

Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the touring group are practicing posture and even tuning ahead of the tour.
Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the touring group are practicing posture and even tuning ahead of the tour.
Priska Neely/KPCC

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To mark its 10th anniversary, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Youth Orchestra LA – better known as YOLA – is sending some of its young musicians on their first-ever tour.

To prepare, the young musicians are learning elements of performance that they hadn’t considered before.

L.A. Philharmonic theatrical director Debbie Devine has been popping into rehearsals to work with the teens on the little details — posture, facial expression, attitude.

"If you're chewing gum, that is a little bit of a disengagement," Devine told the group during a recent rehearsal. "If you're looking down at your instrument, if your arms are crossed, if you're looking at the hall because, of course, you haven't been there before — all of that is disengagement."

The goal, Devine said, is to push the students to coalesce as an ensemble and truly engage the audience. 

"Trust that you all will have a beautiful experience and so will the audience, because [are you] the guest or the host?" she asked the group.

"The host," the students shouted.

Eighty of YOLA's most talented musicians will play at four venues around the state, starting with a performance at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge on Oct. 23

Debbie Devine, theatrical director for the LA Philharmonic, is working with the students to perfect their presence on stage to engage the audience.
Debbie Devine, theatrical director for the LA Philharmonic, is working with the students to perfect their presence on stage to engage the audience. "They have to be invited," she said. "It's a dialogue."
Priska Neely/KPCC

"She's really showing us how to put our best selves out there for people to see," said Julia Lopes, 16, who's been playing viola with YOLA for 10 years. "Before, we were a bit more introverted and didn't really know how to express ourselves while playing music and when we're not playing."

LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel founded the program, which provides free instruments and intensive training to students in underserved areas. It started with just 80 kids and now serves nearly 800 at three sites: EXPO CenterHOLA (Heart of Los Angeles) and Los Angeles County High Schools of the Arts (LACHSA).

YOLA at LACHSA

"We’re looking to this [tour] as sort of pushing them to the next level in terms of their own musicality," said Gretchen Nielsen, director of educational initiatives at the LA Philharmonic. 

The 80 musicians on the tour will play a 45-minute set of works by Beethoven, Brahms, John Williams and more.

"This repertoire is a stretch for them," Nielsen said. "It’s tough. And we are working them hard and they are rising to the occasion, which is really great."

In between musical pieces, the concert will also feature videos that tell the story of the history of the program. Many of the videos feature current teenagers in the program when they were six or seven years old. The room filled with gasps and giggles at a recent rehearsal when the students saw the videos for the first time.

Israel Natareno, 16, has been playing violin with YOLA for eight years.
Israel Natareno, 16, has been playing violin with YOLA for eight years.
Priska Neely/KPCC

"I'm feeling a little bit nervous,"said Israel Natareno, 16, who's been playing violin with YOLA for eight years.  "The majority of it is excitement because it's gonna be an opportunity that other kids don't get."

Students in YOLA have gotten a lot of incredible opportunities over the years. In 2015, the young musicians went to Japan to perform alongside a youth orchestra whose members survived the Fukushima disaster and performed with their peers in London this spring.

Lopes and Natareno were both among the forty students who provided backup for the band Coldplay during the Super Bowl halftime show for a television audience of millions. Natereno says he'll probably be a little more nervous during the tour when all eyes are on them. 

Nielsen says organizers have been dreaming about a tour since the students were too little to go. This tour will link up with the LA Phil's West Coast tour. Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the young musicians at their final stop at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, and the next day the LA Phil starts its tour in San Francisco.

"For a lot of these students, they’ve spent their childhoods in this program," said Nielsen. "It is their home away from home. And to be able to reminisce with them and help tell their stories through this concert — I think it will help bring the community together even more than it already is."

Find more information about the YOLA's tour stops here