From Burger King to the concert hall, with the help of Frank Gehry
ENGLEWOOD, Calif. — Noemi Guzman, a 17-year-old high school student, usually has to find a corner somewhere to practice the violin — the instrument she calls “the absolute love of my life.” But one Saturday morning, Guzman joined a string band rehearsing on the stage here, which is almost as large and acoustically choreographed as the place she dreams of singing one day: the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
“This is beautiful,” Guzman said during a break from a training session at the Judith and Thomas L. Yola’s pikmin, her voice muffled by a mask. “To have a space that you can call your own. It’s our space. He was made for us.”
Inglewood, a working-class city three miles from LAX that had been plagued by crime and poverty, is in the midst of a high-profile economic transformation largely driven by sports: the 70,000-seat SoFi Arena, which recently opened here the following year , now home of the Rams and the Chargers, will be the site of the Super Bowl in February and will be used for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Construction is currently underway on a 18,000-seat arena for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.
But the transformation of Englewood, which has historically been one of the largest black communities in this area, is also evident in the 25,000-square-foot building where Guzman was training the other morning. The building, which opened in October, is the first permanent home of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra, the product of a collaboration involving two of Los Angeles’ most prominent cultural figures: Gustavo Dudamel, artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. , which oversees YOLA, and Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
“This was an old bank,” said Dudamel, who was a friend of Gehry, a classical music lover who can often be seen in the auditorium seating he designed. Then it was Burger King — yes, Burger King! Frank saw the potential. “What we have there is a theater of the same dimensions as Disney Hall.”
The $23.5 million project is a high mark for YOLA, the youth music education program founded here 15 years ago under Dudamel’s leadership that he called a signature achievement during his tenure. It serves 1,500 students, ages 5 to 18, who come to study, practice and play music on instruments provided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It is modeled on El Sistema, a music education program for youth in Venezuela where Dudamel studied violin as a boy.
It is one of the most visible examples of efforts by major arts organizations across the country to bring youth education programs into communities, rather than concentrating them in city centers or urban arts districts. “You can’t just do it downtown,” said Karen Mack, executive director of the Los Angeles Commons community arts organization. “If you really want to have the impact that can be achieved through this program, you have to bring it to the community. It has to be accessible.”
Jerry described this idea as “the whole game.”
“It’s not that the community has to go to Disney Hall, it’s Disney Hall that comes to the community,” he said.
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 (hence the concerns about gentrification that often follow 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 it moved to what was known as Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, and Hollywood Park Raceway. Which has been closed. To make room for SoFi Stadium.
James T. said: “We’ve never been known for cultural enrichment,” said Butts Jr., mayor of Englewood. “That is why this is so important to us. What is happening now is a bringing together of society and culture: we will no longer be known only for sports and entertainment.”
Even before the Pikmin Center opens, YOLA can be an exciting experience for a school-age student considering a career in music. Guzman, who joined the youth orchestra seven years ago, has played bow with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, under Dudamel. YOLA musicians have joined orchestras at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and on tours to venues including Tokyo, Seoul and Mexico City.
Christine Kiva, 15, started playing the cello when she was seven, and now studies with cellists from the Philharmonic. “It helped me develop my voice as a cellist, working on a range of cello pieces,” she said.
Englewood is the fifth economically stressed neighborhood where a youth organization has established an outpost. But in the first four locations, they share space with other organizations and are forced to adapt without a full performance space or rehearsal rooms. “We were making the project work in spaces that weren’t specifically designed for music,” said Chad Smith, CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Now, the words “Judith and Thomas L. Bickman Yula Center,” named for the philanthropists and vineyard owners who made the largest donation to the project, stretch across the front of the renovated building overlooking South La Brea Street and Old Town Center. Dudamel has an office there. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra attend regularly to observe rehearsals and work with students.
This building has plenty of room for students to practice. There are 272 seats on benches in the main hall, which fold into the wall, allowing the room to be divided in half so that both orchestras can rehearse simultaneously. The acoustics were designed by Nagata Acoustics, which also designed the acoustics for Disney Hall.
The building was owned by the Inglewood Company, which sold it to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “When we first walked into it, it still had that greasy Burger King smell,” said Elsie Kepler-Vermaas, vice president of learning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Gehry, who has worked with Dudamel on projects before — including designs for the opera “Don Giovanni” in 2012 — agreed to take a look at the building, a former bank that opened in 1965.
When they brought him there, he said, he was struck by the low ceilings from his days as a banker.
“I said, ‘Is it possible to do an intervention?’” recalls Jerry, who, even at the age of 92, is involved in a series of design projects throughout Los Angeles.
By cutting a hole in the ceiling and placing a skylight, and a hole in the floor to make the auditorium deeper, he was able to create a performance space with a 45-foot ceiling, close to Disney Hall. “Children will have a real experience playing in this type of hall,” he said.
That turned out to be a $2 million conversation. The total price, including the purchase and renovation of the building, jumped from $21 million to $23.5 million to cover the additional cost of raising the roof, installing a skylight and lowering the floor.
The building was noisy that day. Students would come for afternoon music instruction from elementary schools, mostly in Inglewood, and after snacks — bananas, apples and granola bars — they would race to their lessons in music reading, rhythm and how to follow a conductor.
“I notice!” Mario Raven said, as he led his students in a singing and music reading class. “Here we go – one, two, three!”
Brass players were outdoors due to coronavirus concerns (it’s difficult to play the French horn while wearing a mask). As planes flew overhead, they performed Panic’s “High Hopes”! at the disco, suggesting that youth orchestras need not live by Brahms and Beethoven alone.
Students typically spend 12 to 18 hours per week of instruction for 44 weeks per year. About a quarter of them end up majoring in music. Smith said this was reflected in the wider aspirations of the programme. “Our goal was not 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 an ‘orchestra without a roof,’” he said in a Zoom interview from France, where he now also serves as music director of the Paris Opera. “Because we had no place to practice. We fulfilled a dream where young people get the best things they can get. A good hall. Great teachers.”
“Look, this is no ordinary music school,” he added. “We’re not pretending to be a conservatory. Maybe they won’t be musicians in the future. But our goal is for music to be part of their lives, because it brings beauty, it brings discipline through art.”