A student orchestra shouts 'Mambo!' and meets its idol
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A student orchestra shouts 'Mambo!' and meets its idol
Maestro Gustavo Dudamel chats backstage with three high school violinists performing with the New York Philharmonic for a concert gala at David Geffen Hall in New York, April 24, 2024. A 95-member youth ensemble nominated by schools and arts programs spent six days preparing for concerts led by he next music director of the New York Philharmonic, superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who has vowed to expand the Philharmonic’s presence in schools and in the community when he takes over in 2026. (James Estrin/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- The student musicians, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, were rehearsing an excerpt from “West Side Story” in a high school auditorium one recent afternoon. Then, as the trumpets blared and the timpani went wild, a voice broke out from the conductor’s podium.

“Oy yo yo yo yo yo yo,” said superstar maestro Gustavo Dudamel, who was leading the rehearsal. “You are not dancing together.”

Dudamel, the New York Philharmonic’s next music director, paused for a moment, telling the students they needed a more precise rhythm and sound. Then he put his hands in his pockets and swaggered around the stage.

“This is cool, really cool music,” he said, eliciting laughter from the students. “We need something that goes with the nature of the body.”

The students, part of a 95-member youth ensemble nominated by schools and arts programs and assembled by the New York Philharmonic, were at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan for six days last week. They were preparing for a concert Friday with Dudamel, who has vowed to expand the Philharmonic’s presence in schools and in the community when he takes over in 2026.

Many of the students, who came from high schools across the five boroughs, were nervous. Some had never performed in an orchestra before. But they said they were eager to show audience members and Dudamel, an idol for many of them, what they could do.

“He’s like a god,” said Tristan Wiafe, 17, a double bass player from the Bronx. “He’s in the upper echelons of musical society. And now I just hope that we can impress him.”

Olivia Okin, 18, a percussion player who lives on Staten Island, said she had never imagined she would perform with Dudamel, or “the one with the wild hair,” as her teachers described him.

“It’s crazy to think that I’m up here playing with him,” she said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

While their friends were on spring break, the young musicians endured long days of rehearsal at LaGuardia, working with conductor Dietrich Paredes and a team of 16 professional musicians. They refined selections from “West Side Story,” by Leonard Bernstein, snapping their fingers, twirling their instruments and shouting “Mambo!” They also rehearsed works by William Grant Still, Arturo Márquez and David Wright, a 10-year-old composer from Brooklyn. (Dudamel helped select the program.)

One afternoon, Dudamel invited Wright onstage to offer feedback as the orchestra rehearsed his composition, “Tarzan’s Rage.” Wright, wearing a New York Yankees jersey, asked for changes in the tempo and dynamics. Dudamel praised his “beautiful piece” and gave him a high five.

The students said the experience of playing together brought them closer. During breaks, they traded phone numbers, played video games and shared videos on TikTok of cockatoos playing the xylophone. They danced in a mambo class and sang karaoke (“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen and “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele were favorites).

Sophia Remorca, 17, an oboist from Staten Island and the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines, said she felt like an outsider at first: She had never played in an orchestra. Remorca had to learn to give the pitch that the other players tune to, and she had several solos to practice. But her peers made her feel welcome, she said.

“It’s very challenging but it’s just nice having the support of these people,” she said. “They understand me and believe in what I can do.”

The student orchestra, which began rehearsing in February and disbanded after the concert with Dudamel, was part of the Philharmonic’s weeklong celebration of the centennial of Young People’s Concerts, which have helped introduce new generations to classical music. Some of the students were chosen to perform alongside Philharmonic players and Dudamel on Wednesday at a gala concert at David Geffen Hall focused on music education.

Dudamel has spoken about his desire to make education a hallmark of his tenure. In Los Angeles, he created the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, known as YOLA, which is modeled on El Sistema, the Venezuelan social and artistic movement under which he trained.

In an interview, Dudamel said his aim was not to start a version of YOLA in New York but to deepen partnerships with schools and community programs so that the Philharmonic could become “something that represents the desires, the dreams, the values of young people.”

“We will not save classical music by selling tickets in a certain way,” he said. “No. It’s really about making the institution a part of the community in a very deep way.”

It was an unusually packed week for Dudamel — in addition to the gala concert, he had agreed to pick up three subscription concerts with the Philharmonic, substituting for an ailing conductor.

During his time with the students, Dudamel provided musical ideas (“This part is pure perfume,” he said of a segment of the Márquez) as well as practical advice (“Don’t drink too much soda before the concert”). He also offered reflections on his upbringing in Venezuela. He said that when he was young, the idea of performing with a top ensemble like the Philharmonic was a “very impossible dream.” He emphasized the importance of making mistakes, saying they were crucial to “really improve and evolve.”

“The great orchestras in the world are not the ones that play every note perfectly,” he said at one rehearsal. “They’re the ones that make things special.”

Atzel Rodriguez, a 16-year-old cellist who was born in Venezuela and lives in Manhattan, said that Dudamel’s success on the global stage was inspiring.

“He is in the big leagues of music,” said Rodriguez, who hopes to one day become a soloist. “I feel a sense of national pride.”

On the night of the concert with Dudamel at LaGuardia, the students, dressed in festive lime-green shirts, lined up backstage. When Dudamel emerged from a classroom in a matching shirt, they cheered and took photos.

“To work with them and to see them, it’s a way for me to connect with the soul of everything,” he said. “This week is crucial for their lives.”

At the end of the concert, the audience of several hundred people offered a prolonged ovation. Remorca, the oboist, said she felt energized, especially when she noticed people smiling and moving during the mambo from “West Side Story.”

“It was exhilarating, it was just really fun,” she said backstage. “I could feel everyone’s emotions when we were playing. It was just so good.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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