From a Burger King to a concert hall, with the help of Frank Gehry

INGLEWOOD, Calif .– Noemi Guzman, a 17-year-old high school student, usually has to find a place to practice the violin – the instrument she calls “literally, the love of my life.” But the other Saturday morning, Guzman joined a string ensemble performing on a stage here that’s almost as grand and acoustically tuned as the place she dreams of someday performing: Walt Disney Concert Hall, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

“It’s beautiful,” Guzman said during a break after a training session at YOLA’s Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen Center, his voice muffled by a mask. “To have a space that you can call your own. This is our space. It is created for us.

Inglewood, a working-class town three miles from the Los Angeles Airport that was once rife with crime and poverty, is in the midst of a high-profile, largely sports-focused economic transformation: the SoFi Stadium of 70 Seating, which opened here last year, now the home of the Rams and Chargers, will be the site of the Super Bowl in February and will be used during the 2028 Summer Olympics. Construction is In progress on an 18,000 seat arena for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

But the transformation of Inglewood, historically one of the largest black communities in this region, is also exemplified by the 25,000 square foot building where Guzman was training the other morning. The building, which opened in October, is the first permanent headquarters of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and is the product of a collaboration between two of Los Angeles’ most prominent cultural figures: Gustavo Dudamel, artistic director of Los Angeles. Philharmonic, which oversees YOLA, and Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“It was an old bank,” said Dudamel, who has long been friends with Gehry, a classical music lover who can often be spotted in the seats of the hall he designed. “Then it was a Burger King – yes, a Burger King! Frank saw the potential. What we have there is a scene the same dimensions as Disney Hall. “

The $ 23.5 million project is a highlight for YOLA, the music education program for young people that was founded here 15 years ago under Dudamel and which he calls the iconic achievement of his tenure. It accommodates 1,500 students, aged 5 to 18, who come to study, practice and play music on instruments provided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was modeled after El Sistema, the music education program for young people in Venezuela where Dudamel studied the violin as a child.

And this is one of the most striking examples of the efforts of the country’s leading arts organizations to bring youth education programs to communities, rather than concentrating them in city centers or urban artistic neighborhoods. . “You can’t just do it downtown,” said Karen Mack, executive director of LA Commons, a community arts organization. “If you really want it to have the possible impact with this program, you have to make it known to the community. It must be accessible. “

Gehry called this idea the “whole game”.

“It’s not the community that has to come to Disney Hall,” he said, “but the Disney Hall that comes into the community.”

For Inglewood, the new YOLA center is a notable addition to what has been a transformative wave of stadium and arena construction, which has spurred a wave of commercial and residential development (and with that, concerns about gentrification that follows. often this type of development). Until 2016, Inglewood was primarily known as the home of the Forum, the 45-year-old arena where the Lakers and Kings once played before moving to what was known as Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, and Hollywood Park Racetrack, which closed to make way for the SoFi Stadium.

“We have never been known for cultural enrichment,” said James T. Butts Jr., the mayor of Inglewood. “That’s why it’s so important to us. What is happening now is a district of society and culture: we will no longer be known only for sports and entertainment.

Even before the opening of the Beckmen Center, YOLA could be an exhilarating experience for a school-aged student considering a career in music. Guzman, who joined the youth orchestra seven years ago, has performed bow to bow with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Dudamel. YOLA musicians have joined the Disney Hall Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hollywood Bowl, and toured places such as Tokyo, Seoul and Mexico City.

Christine Kiva, 15, who started playing cello at age 7, now studies with cellists at the Philharmonie. “It helped me develop my sound as a cellist and work on a cello repertoire,” she said.

Inglewood is the fifth economically stressed neighborhood where the youth organization has established an outpost. But in the first four locations, it shares space with other organizations, forced to fit in without a full-fledged performance space or practice rooms. “We were running the project in spaces that weren’t specifically designed for music,” said Chad Smith, general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Now, the words “Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center,” named after the philanthropists and vineyard owners who have donated the largest amount to the project, sprawl across the front of the renovated building overlooking South La Brea Avenue and the old city center. Dudamel has an office there. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic show up regularly to observe the practice and work with the students.

This building has a lot of rooms for students to practice. There are 272 seats on benches in the main hall, which can be tucked into a wall, allowing the hall to be divided in half so that two orchestras can practice at the same time. The acoustics were designed by Nagata Acoustics, who also designed the acoustics of the Disney Hall.

The building was owned by Inglewood, who sold it to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “When we first walked in, it still had the greasy smell of a Burger King,” said Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, vice president of learning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gehry, who had previously worked with Dudamel on projects including designs for opera “Don Giovanni” in 2012 – agreed to take a look at the building, a former bank that opened in 1965.

He said when they brought him there he was struck by the low ceilings of his time as a bank.

“I said: ‘is it possible to do an intervention?’ Remembers Gehry who, even at 92, is involved in a series of design projects across Los Angeles.

By drilling a hole in his ceiling and installing a skylight, and drilling a hole in the floor to deepen the room, he was able to create a performance space with a 45-foot-high ceiling, close to that of Disney Hall. “The children will have a real experience playing in this kind of room,” he said.

It turned out to be a $ 2 million conversation; the total price, including the purchase of the building and its renovation, increased from $ 21 million to $ 23.5 million to cover the additional costs of raising the roof, installing a skylight and d lowering the floor.

The building was busy the other day. The students had come for afternoon music lessons in elementary schools, most of them in Inglewood, and after snacks – bananas, apples, granola bars – they rushed to their music reading, percussion lessons. and monitoring of a conductor.

“Pay attention!” said Mario Raven, leading his students in a singing and music reading class. “Here we go, one, two, three! “

The brass were outside because of the Covid-19 concerns (it’s difficult to play the French horn while wearing a mask). As the planes flew over, they executed “High hopes”By Panic! at Disco, suggesting that a youth orchestra does not need to live only with Brahms and Beethoven.

Students typically take 12-18 hours of instruction per week for 44 weeks per year. About a quarter of them end up specializing in music. Smith said this was reflected in the program’s broader aspirations. “Our goal was not that we were going to train the greatest musicians in the world,” he said. “Our goal was to provide music education to develop students’ self-esteem through music. “

Dudamel said his experience as a boy in Venezuela was instrumental in bringing the program to Los Angeles. “I grew up in an orchestra where they called us, in the press, the orchestra without a ceiling,” he said in an interview with Zoom from France, where he is now also musical director of the Opera. from Paris. “Because we didn’t have a place to rehearse. We have made a dream come true where young people have the best things they can have. A good room. Great teachers.

“Look, this is no ordinary music school,” he added. “We don’t pretend to be a conservatory. Maybe they won’t be musicians in the future. But our goal is for them to have music in their life, because it brings beauty, it brings discipline through art.


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