Arts Desk

Yo-Yo Ma and Gustavo Dudamel Visit D.C. Today, And You Probably Won’t Get to See Them

... Unless you 1) bought tickets months ago or 2) are a student at Savoy Elementary School.

This morning, superstar cellist and all-around nice guy Yo-Yo Ma came to Savoy Elementary in Anacostia to teach two in-class workshops and give a performance for students. Much like Rancid, Ma sometimes likes to give free surprise gigs at odd venues; this author once attended a Christmas Eve service at a church in Boston in which an unassuming man suddenly showed up on stage with a cello, played a Bach air, and then left without saying a word. The minister later remarked, "Many of you may be thinking that person looked like Yo-Yo Ma, or that he sounded like Yo-Yo Ma. In fact, I can assure you he was Yo-Yo Ma."

Ma's visit to Savoy wasn't one of his impromptu concerts though; this was planned in conjunction with his solo recital at the Kennedy Center last night, arranged by the Washington Performing Arts Society. It's the first of a pair of high-profile concerts put on by WPAS at the Kennedy Center this week. The second is tonight, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.

By now everyone’s heard of El Sistema, Venezuela’s legendary music education system that plucks kids out of the poorest slums and turns them into world-class musicians. Gustavo Dudamel became its star alum when he was named director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 26. But there are others like him, as El Sistema continues to churn out a veritable mafia of 20-something Venezuelan prodigies who fan out across the globe, guest-conducting major orchestras and running institutions like Venice’s Fenice opera house. All are fiercely loyal to El Sistema and the vision of its founder José Antonio Abreu, whose leadership over the years has cemented broad public and political support for music education in one of the world’s most ideologically polarized countries. Hugo Chávez champions the program, but El Sistema’s history spans 10 governments, both left wing and right. Today Abreu’s model is being replicated in other countries, even the heart of Empire with El Sistema USA, surely to Chávez’s delight.

No one is more loyal than Dudamel himself, who talks about Abreu the way crazy white people talk about Ron Paul. Dudamel retained direction of El Sistema’s flagship, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, even after leaving for California. Now a global touring institution, the youth orchestra plays on stages other youth orchestras never get to see, a testament both to their level of musicianship and also to the hype. The L.A. Phil is Dudamel’s job, but Simón Bolívar is his beloved alma mater, and together they put on a rambunctious show. Unfortunately tonight's show sold out long ago; those lucky enough to get tickets in advance should have a ball.

Yo Yo Ma photo courtesy Resource Entertainment Group

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