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Youth orchestra rides the LA Philharmonic's coattails to Japan

Members of YOLA pose behind a bus in Fukushima.
Members of YOLA pose behind a bus in Fukushima.
Gideon Brower, KPCC
Members of YOLA pose behind a bus in Fukushima.
Moses Aubrey plays bass with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles.
Gideon Brower

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The Los Angeles Philharmonic is touring Asia this month. The orchestra has already performed in South Korea and China — including its first time ever on the mainland. On March 27, the massive body of musicians lands in Japan.  

But they aren’t the only ones lugging their instruments across the Pacific. Members of Youth Orchestra L.A. are there too, taking part in a little teenage musical diplomacy.

On the flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, it's easy enough to pick out the members of Youth Orchestra. They’re the 15 teenagers wearing black T-shirts that say "Philharmonic Asia Tour," with their weirdly-shaped luggage carefully stowed in overhead compartments.

Gretchen Nielsen is Director of Educational Initiatives for the Philharmonic. She’s also one of four adults traveling with the group, and she lists off their combined gear: "We have two flutes, one clarinet, one oboe, a trumpet, a trombone, a tuba, a couple of cellos, a couple of violins, and one bass."

The musicians range in age from 13 to 18. They’re on their way to perform with a similar youth orchestra in Fukushima, the region of Japan that was devastated four years ago by an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear power plant accident.

Both orchestras grow out of El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth music program that produced Philharmonic musical director Gustavo Dudamel, who now champions the group around the world.

Youth Orchestra Los Angeles was founded in 2007. It's grown to include more than 800 students at three Los Angeles locations — South Central, East L.A., and downtown.

These are communities where the students have little-to-no access to music education," Nielsen says. "They’re also communities that have little access to other opportunities."

How did they select 15 kids from more than 800? The process involved auditions, interviews and personal essays. Flutist Joas Espinoza says: "I wrote about struggles at home. [My] motivation to help my brothers out in the future when I become more stable. And how I plan on going to college to be able to reach that goal."

Some of the young musicians making the trip have never been overseas, but others performed in London with YOLA two years ago. What are the young musicians expecting to see in Japan? Violinist Blanca Tinoco expects it to be "really crowded," while cellist Jacob Esquivel says he's curious to explore "the smell ... They have different herbs and plants in Japan."

Laura Garcia, another violinist, is expecting major culture shock.

"I'm not ready for it," she said on the flight, "but at the same time I'm really excited for when it's going to happen, because I still feel like we're in Los Angeles. It hasn't hit me yet. [laughs]

The orchestra arrived in Tokyo at 6:35 in the evening — 2:35 a.m. in Los Angeles — but the group is wide-awake, eager to get moving after a 12-hour flight. They'll soon meet their counterparts from the Fukushima Youth Orchestra. And on Sunday, Gustavo Dudamel will rehearse the combined group before an audience in Tokyo's prestigious Suntory Hall.

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