The center of anything looks and feels different from where you are; how you frame what’s in front of you or around you; how you are positioned in relation to everything or everyone else.

Earlier in February, I had the privilege of being able to attend the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 8th Symphony (the Symphony of a Thousand) in Los Angeles, played by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, along with several major choral groups in Los Angeles. The performance was, of course, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Some context: this particular rehearsal was part of an epic musical adventure, a major Mahler performance cycle that included 9 symphonies, 2 orchestras, 2 countries, and 1 conductor. (Here’s a great review of Gustavo’s Mahler mega-tour from the New York Times if you’re interested.) The performance was breathtaking, and Gustavo was, in many ways, at the center of all of the action, at the epicenter of the entire room, sculpting the sound and experience of everyone else in that room.

At another version of the center, however, was the Los Angeles Children’s Choir, dressed below in red:

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's 8th Symphony

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's 8th Symphony

Or, for the full view:

Symphony of a Thousand in Los Angeles, CA

'Symphony of a Thousand' in Los Angeles, CA

The symphony was absolutely epic, but what was most profound for me in that experience was the image of those children from the Children’s Choir at the absolute center of the stage, embraced from all sides by their ‘adult counterparts.’ It seemed such a beautiful metaphor, a brilliant version of a full choir and orchestra, whose fundamental purpose was, as Maestro Abreu says, “to agree with itself,” and–in the process–to signal its relationship to its young children, which is to situate them squarely in the heart of the magnitude of it all, perhaps both to protect those children, as well as to allow them to serve as the driving force and strength for the whole.

I found myself thinking of this particular concert again yesterday evening, while in the auditorium at the Center for Social Action in Caracas (the center for El Sistema administration). Now, put this on as you read:

I went to hear Gustavo conduct the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra again, in a thrilling performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (streaming melodiously from your speakers right now, right?!). The experience was almost other-worldly in terms of the beauty and impact of the sound and performance, but it was the fact that students from núcleos all around Caracas were the sole audience members (besides myself and my fellow Fellows, of course!) that made the whole experience feel elevated just a few layers above reality. (We actually recognized many of the children in the audience from our visits to Montalbán in Caracas!) As Gustavo walked onto the stage for the first time, the sounds of squealing children and teenagers created a new, transcendent musical layer in that space. Following the performance, they flocked to him, and to the Concertmaster, eager to connect with their musical heroes.

Despite the immense sonic and spiritual impact of the music being made that evening, at the center of it all wasnotthe Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, nor was it even necessarily Gustavo. It was pulled further back, from within the heart of the audience, comprised of children and parents whose deep love and hunger for the music paralleled–if not supeceded–the hunger and love that emanated from the stage. (If I had a panoramic mega-camera, this is where I’d insert a full concert hall shot!)

In previous experiences in my life, such as when I went to hear the New York Youth Symphony perform at Carnegie Hall when I was a junior in high school, my intense desire to be on the stage felt like a desire to be within the center of the creation of something extremely and insanely potent. I almost fell out of my seat when I was at that particular performance, and that hunger to be within that orchestra propelled me. This time, from within the audience at the auditorium at the Center for Social Action, I felt that I was in the center of something in which I was absolutely needed; that I was nestled within an audience filled with as much hunger and power as had the performers; and that that power and hunger would continue to drive me forward.

I’d love to share with you the wisdom of Sistema Fellow Julie Davis, in a post-concert interview:

Part of the quest, I think, in figuring out how to bring major elements of El Sistema back to the U.S. is to figure out how to tap into and grow that hunger, both within young children (an idea that fellow Fellow Julie Davis has inspired me to explore deeply) and across ‘communities.’ There’s a national hunger that certainly seems to be bubbling, and certainly no one right combination of ingredients or nutrients that would make it work: it is so entirely context-specific. But that is precisely the mission here: to gather fluency with central ingredients here, and to bring them back, cull them together, and follow the course of a major chemical reaction.

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