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

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

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

Inglewood, a working-class town three miles from Los Angeles Airport that was once plagued by crime and poverty, is in the midst of a far-reaching economic transformation, largely focused on sports: SoFi Stadium in 70,000 seater, 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 for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Construction is underway on an arena 18,000 seats for the Los Angeles Clippers, the basketball team.

But the transformation of Inglewood, historically one of the largest black communities in that area, is also exemplified by the 25,000 square foot building where Guzman practiced the other morning. The building, which opened in October, is the first permanent home of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and is the result of a collaboration between two of the most prominent cultural figures in Los Angeles: Gustavo Dudamel, artistic director of the 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, a longtime friend of Gehry’s, a classical music lover who can often be spotted in the armchairs 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 stage the same size as Disney Hall.

The $23.5 million project is a high point for YOLA, the youth music education program that was founded here 15 years ago under Dudamel and which he calls the flagship achievement of his tenure. It hosts 1,500 students, ages 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 it’s one of the most striking examples of the efforts of the nation’s leading arts organizations to roll out youth education programs to communities, rather than concentrating them in inner cities or urban arts districts. . “You can’t just do it downtown,” said Karen Mack, executive director of LA Commons, a community arts organization. “If you really want him to have the impact possible with this program, you have to let the community know about it. It must be accessible. »

Gehry called this idea the “whole game”.

“It’s not the community that should go to Disney Hall,” he said, “it’s Disney Hall that comes to 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 it, concerns about subsequent gentrification). 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 SoFi Stadium.

“We’ve never been known for cultural enrichment,” said James T. Butts Jr., Inglewood’s mayor. “That’s why it’s so important to us. What’s happening now is a rounding off of society and culture: we won’t be known just for sports and entertainment anymore.

Even before the Beckmen Center opened, YOLA could be a heady experience for a school-age 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 Dudamel’s baton. YOLA musicians have joined the Philharmonic at Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and on tour to places like Tokyo, Seoul and Mexico City.

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

Inglewood is the fifth economically troubled neighborhood where the youth organization has set up an outpost. But in the first four locations, it shares space with other organizations, forced to fit in without 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 Orchestra.

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

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

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

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

By cutting a hole in his ceiling and installing a skylight, and cutting 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 what Disney Hall has . “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, was increased from $21 million to $23.5 million to cover the additional cost of raising the roof, installing a well light and the lowering of the floor.

The building was busy the other day. Pupils had come for afternoon music instruction at elementary schools, mostly in Inglewood, and after the snacks – bananas, apples, granola bars – they rushed off for their music reading lessons , percussion and how to follow a conductor.

“Pay attention!” said Mario Raven, guiding his students through a singing and music reading lesson. “Let’s go – one, two, three!”

The brass were outside due to Covid-19 issues (it’s hard to play French horn while wearing a mask). As the planes flew overhead, they performed “High Hopes” from Panic! at the Disco, suggesting that a youth orchestra need not live by Brahms and Beethoven alone.

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

Dudamel said his experience as a boy in Venezuela was formative 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 a Zoom interview from France, where he is now also musical director of the Paris Opera. “Because we had no 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.

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

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