The Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) is widely seen as one of the great feel-good stories in music. Today, it just became feel-better when its members — children under 17 — got to play the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
YOLA is part of an outreach network based in some of L.A.’s less affluent neighborhoods that the orchestra founded after the arrival in 2009 of its young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel, gifted and charismatic, is one of the most hyped conductors of recent memory, and perhaps the only one to have inspired a character on a sitcom — Rodrigo in Amazon’s “Mozart in the Jungle,” a role for which Gael Garcia Bernal took home a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy series. (Dudamel also had a cameo of his own in Season 2.)
He’s also a product of El Sistema, a youth orchestra program in Venezuela that has been inaccurately romanticized in much of Europe and North America as a program that takes underprivileged children and transforms their lives by teaching them music. It turns out that the kids in El Sistema may not actually have been underprivileged at all, but the concept has spawned some honorable copycats in North America, including OrchKids in Baltimore and YOLA.
Dudamel moves in a world in which meeting Chris Martin of Coldplay, and striking up a friendship with him, is not remarkable; and this meeting gave rise to the idea of getting YOLA involved in this year’s halftime show at the Super Bowl. If YOLA and Dudamel were attempting to make classical music cool for young people, this invitation clinched it. Three days ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic released a video of the young musicians practicing for and talking about the halftime show, and every single kid had such a huge, infectious smile on his or her face that the venture was already a winner before the show even started.
Classical music’s vaunted elitism is tissue-paper thin: The field is always almost pitiably hungry for validation from the pop world, while appearing to disdain it. But if the field is really eager to win over young audiences, this is the way to do it. As one girl put it in the L.A. Philharmonic video, other kids were now going to think taking part in YOLA was really cool.
Given the street cred, it probably hardly mattered that the musical component of that involvement was minimal. The young players danced out on stage with Chris Martin at the start of the show, brandishing violins and a few cellos ornately decorated with flags and flowers in the ’70s spirit of the enterprise. By the final set they had abandoned their instruments altogether and were simply singing and clapping along with everyone else — with Dudamel standing behind and between Beyoncé and Martin, looking like just one of the crowd and yet managing to be right at the center of the action. For those who had hoped for a great blow for classical music in the form of Beethoven or Shostakovich, it may not have seemed like much; but for anyone eager to see classical music take its place on the same playing field as other art forms in our society, it was a signal, and delightful, satisfaction.