IN THE WAKE OF A DIVISIVE ELECTION, artists across the U.S. are seeking ways to bring their communities together. For many artists, this is simply the next step in the work they are already doing: using music, literature and other forms of art to create connection and joy. The Harvard community got a taste of that firsthand during a Nov. 7 event with Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, and Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the Philharmonic and a Hauser Visiting Leader at the Center for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).
The event, titled “The Creative Class,” included a conversation featuring Dudamel and Borda. But it began with a glimpse of musical community in action: a live rehearsal with Longy’s Sistema Side by Side Orchestra, conducted by Dudamel.
The Longy Sistema Side by Side series is inspired by Dudamel’s longstanding work with the El Sistema movement, based in Venezuela, which seeks to provide access to musical education for children in all kinds of social and economic situations. The Longy series pairs children and teenagers (ages 7-15) from El Sistema-inspired programs around Massachusetts with university students from the Longy School of Music of Bard College, to provide high-quality music education and performance opportunities. Both the Longy series and the El Sistema movement emphasize, as Dudamel says, that “music is a fundamental human right.”
Dudamel began the rehearsal with the Russian Sailor’s Dance from The Red Poppy by Reinhold Gliére, a lilting piece that evoked the movement of the sea. He exhorted the students to emphasize the music’s “weaving” quality, joking, “they are sailors! And Russians!” As he talked about working with dynamics and other musical markings, he noted, “sometimes the information in music and life is too little.”
“Now we go from the sea to the sky,” Dudamel said as the students shifted to the Star Wars piece. He worked with the string section on a high tremolo, observing, “the tremolo is the light of the stars. It’s better when the speed of it is different in every player.”
After concluding the rehearsal (to a standing ovation from the audience), Dudamel came back onstage to talk with Borda about his work. “I’m very privileged to have the chance to do music, and to work with people who love music,” he said.
Dudamel spoke about the importance of both musical skills and “human skills,” including the ability to listen to one another as musicians and as people. “We are a family creating harmony,” he said of the Philharmonic and the youth orchestras he works with. On the eve of the U.S. election, he noted, this harmony is “a good example for how the world should work. Listening to each other – it would be a good thing to do.”
Along those lines, Dudamel talked about his work with El Sistema, which has a 42-year history under seven different governments in Venezuela. “If I want to do something in my life, it is to unite people, not divide people,” he said. “You have to keep working with love. We have to sit and talk. We have to listen to each other. We need peace to create a better world.”
Borda asked Dudamel about his work with the Philharmonic, and he emphasized access – not only to the live performance of music, but to the idea of classical music. “Access is the big thing about classical music,” he said. “We have to reconceive the name – the notion – of classical music. It has to be for everybody.”
Famously, Dudamel never stands on the conductor’s podium to take a bow after a performance, but always steps down to stand among the orchestra. When asked why, he said, “the real thing is the work we do together.”