YOLA National Festival Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the YOLA National Festival Symphony Orchestra | Credit: Farah Sosa

If it’s summer in the City of Angels, it must be time for the YOLA National Festival, one arm of Gustavo Dudamel’s signature Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles initiative, through which the Los Angeles Philharmonic strives to empower young people from diverse communities. This year’s program, which takes place July 7–16, continues to be focused on building a community of musicians and educators, as well as on social justice.

An outgrowth of YOLA, the initiative that began in 2007 and was inspired by El Sistema, the publicly financed music education program founded in Venezuela in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, the 2023 festival promises to be an exhilarating one. The numbers alone attest to the program’s success: 177 students aged 12–18, hailing from 62 programs across 47 cities, 28 states, and one U.S. territory, will spend 10 days learning from and performing with world-famous conductors and faculty.

Convening at Pepperdine University, the students will perform in both the 105-member Symphony Orchestra — with musicians aged 14–18 — and the 72-member Chamber Orchestra — for students aged 12–14.

Elsje Kibler-Vermaas
Elsje Kibler-Vermaas

Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, vice president of learning for the LA Phil, oversees all educational initiatives, including YOLA and the YOLA National Festival, where she has been at the forefront of this movement. Indeed, since first working with the LA Phil in 2006, she’s seen the festival, which is free to participants and includes travel, lodging, and meals, evolve from a local program to its eighth year of national auditioning.

“We really looked at that as our creative learning lab,” she explained, “and because auditioning is a big part of a learning experience, we wanted to create an intensive summer program to focus on artistic development [while creating] a civic-minded community of young musicians from all these different and diverse regions.”

In addition to developing a model that positively shapes progressive music education on the national level, this year’s festival provides students the opportunity to work with Venezuelan conductor Andrés González, who also emerged from El Sistema and is currently music director of Play on Philly, a music education program in Philadelphia, Pa. As for the Chamber Orchestra, which will be led by LaSaundra Booth, an accomplished conductor, teaching artist, and arts administrator from North Carolina, the ensemble that began in 2019 with strings only now also has winds.

“Andrés and LaSaundra were chosen because they are very committed to youth orchestras and have been recognized nationally for leadership in music. For conductors,” added Kibler-Vermaas, “it is also an opportunity to work with Gustavo and have national representation for the festival.”

And speaking of Dudamel, the maestro will lead the young musicians in a closing performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 15. The program will include, among other works, the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and what Kibler-Vermaas says is the YOLA anthem, Arturo Márquez’s Danzón No. 2.

She explained: “It’s a recurring piece and comes back in so many spaces. We’ve played it on our tours to Mexico City, and it keeps coming back. For us, it’s a little sidetrack, and alumni and teaching artists performed it for our grads. They’ve all played it.”

Kibler-Vermaas acknowledged that the festival, in addition to being a vital learning experience, is “a fun gathering. I think a lot about how it empowers the students because it’s a travel experience to a summer festival away from home. I think that cracks musicians’ worlds wide open — to see the wideness of life.

“It creates an opportunity to meet new people. It’s cultural appreciation [and] the ability to adapt to new environments, different places with different foods,” she enthused. “It also boosts their confidence, independence, maybe even freedom. Being away from home, being with new friends, new people, new environments, you learn so much from that.”

Of the attendees, there will be 74 new musicians and 103 returning students, numbers that substantiate the festival’s success. “The beauty is now we have both a Chamber and a Symphony Orchestra,” noted Kibler-Vermaas, “and we see students mature into the Symphony from the Chamber Orchestra. It’s true for local students, too, because they audition and return.

“We also keep seeing our alumni in different places,” she added. “Some alumni played in the Encuentros Festival last year, [and] we’ve seen them grow up with us, supported by their home programs. Seniors are starting to call us and ask, ‘Can we be part of it?’ because they want to stay connected.”

Encuentros Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel with the Encuentros Orchestra | Credit: Samantha Lopez

This summer is also the first time the youth will be at Pepperdine University, which sits on a hill in Malibu, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The location was chosen, said Kibler-Vermaas, because “it is important to us to be outside and see and breathe in clean air. Pepperdine is a great music school [that] also has great music facilities, and we fit in really well.”

Kibler-Vermaas articulated the added benefits of being at Pepperdine. “It’s gorgeous and close to L.A., so we can go to the other places where they’ll rehearse for a concert — at the [Hollywood] Bowl, at the Beckmen [YOLA] Center, and at The Ford. It’s important for us to be at a college campus,” she stressed, “because [students] at the festival are starting to think about college. Last year it was at USC. Now, it’s less of an urban experience, where they stay and they live their lives for 10 days.”

Living their lives also includes getting to know each other through music making, as well as forging new friendships. “When you work really hard and you audition into [the program],” said Kibler-Vermaas, “you have these amazing national experiences to be part of an LA Phil program — of being together and learning together. I hope that [the students] will have had as much fun when this [festival] is over, too.”

Among the many highlights from past gatherings, Kibler-Vermaas extols the opportunity of being able to work with Dudamel. “Early in the festival, they’ll get to meet Gustavo and rehearse with him and connect with him. Gustavo is such a role model who grew up in a similar program. He represents a lot of things [these students] represent as ambassadors to their [own] programs.

“It’s a big thrill [because] he’s so humble and approachable,” she continued, “and he really brings out the best in them, both as humans and artistically, and they look forward to working with him. Performing onstage at Disney Hall, it’s amazing. They love that, and there’s a lot of pride when they go home and talk about their experiences.

“And,” added Kibler-Vermaas, “there’s always a lot of selfies.”