Trenton Central High School orchestra students moved over to let another musician sit with them during a recent performance — world-renowned conductor and musician Gustavo Dudamel, who joined the violin section. As part of his year-long residency with Princeton University Concerts, his January visit to Trenton conveyed the message that music should be part of students’ lives everywhere.
For the student musicians, school administrators, music faculty, and area celebrities such as singer Sarah Dash, Mayor Reed Gusciora, and others, it was affirmation, as Superintendent of Schools Frederick McDowell said, of “the power music has to change lives.”
Norberto Diaz, Trenton schools supervisor of visual and performing arts and partnerships, introduced Dudamel to the high school orchestra and its conductor, Joseph Pucciatti. While Dudamel often conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a tuxedo, he watched the student musicians from the front row of the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School auditorium in a black sweater and sneakers. “I’m having fun,” he said, as he listened to a program that included Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” and a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.
When he decided to sit on the stage, he agreed to play a violin selected by Hedgepeth-Williams music teacher Danny Hall (who made sure the instrument was tuned). Despite having recently broken two fingers, Dudamel played along with the students, performing a “Phantom of the Opera” medley (music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber) and “Another Day of Sun” (Justin Hurwitz) from the film “La La Land.” He swayed to the beat, and when the pieces were finished, he shook hands with most of the excited students and posed for photos.
Conductor Pucciatti — who is also the founder and conductor of the 30-year-old Boheme Opera New Jersey — praised the students, stating that they “played well because of their dedication to the music program at Trenton Central High School. They are at rehearsal every day after school. That is dedication!” Pucciatti said they play like professionals all the time. “They are a very special group of musicians. They are Trenton’s best hope for the future.”
As part of the program, Trenton music faculty and students were encouraged to ask questions. Anthony Figliano from Parker Elementary School said he was a bass baritone who has seen Dudamel conduct the Metropolitan Opera and asked how he would distinguish a good singer from a great singer. Dudamel answered that he doesn’t like to differentiate and tries to give singers space to develop. “The capacity to be inspired is the most important thing,” he said.
Several students asked about Dudamel’s career path and when he knew music would be his career. Dudamel relayed that as a child he used to arrange his toys in an orchestra and conduct them. His next steps seemed to come naturally after that, he said, recommending a combination of discipline and inspiration.
The 37-year-old Venezuelan violinist and conductor is the son of a trombonist and a voice teacher who experienced the El Sistema music education program that started in Venezuela. El Sistema has focusing on underserved communities as its mission. He told Trenton students that he chose the violin over the trumpet because many of his friends played the violin. At age 17 he was appointed conductor of the Venezuelan youth orchestra. He won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Hamburg, Germany, at age 23, and was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2009-’10 season. This season marked his debut conducting the Metropolitan Opera.
He also recounted that a key moment in his career path was playing second violin at age 9 and feeling “blessed” that he was part of the larger sound of an orchestra. “Art takes us to another place that heals our souls,” he said. “Love what you do. Believe in yourself,” he told the students.
Dudamel’s visit to Trenton was the result of his own desire to interact with urban student musicians, much like his own experience growing up under the El Sistema music education program in Venezuela, said Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts. “It was our goal to have him interact with multiple partners,” she said. “Those are the students he wanted to meet. Working with youth is such a big part of his mission.”
Princeton student Lou Chen helped make the connection with the high school orchestra. For the last two years Chen has forged a working relationship with the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) orchestra and Pucciatti, and founded not only the Trenton Youth Orchestra but the TCHS-Princeton University Collaborative Concert Series; provided TCHS Orchestra members the opportunity to watch the Princeton University Orchestra in concert; and brought Princeton student music groups to perform at the high school. Given the relationship, Seltzer thought it was an appropriate match, and said she was “thrilled” that he also played alongside them.
Diaz noted that Dudamel was eager to visit Trenton because of its emphasis on music in the schools, including its own El Sistema-inspired after school program. Founded several years ago by Trenton Music Makers, which brings Trenton students together with several music initiatives, an after-school program was started at Grant Elementary School, and expanded to Dunn Middle School, Wilson Elementary School, Trenton Central High School, and soon at Hedgepeth-Williams. The day before the Trenton concert 20 members of the Music Makers played for Dudamel in a private gathering with members of the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think he would come to Trenton,” said Diaz, a musician himself. “I think the world of this man.” He also quoted Dudamel’s statement that “‘Music is a beautiful imperfection.’ I love that, as a musician,” he said.
Dudamel’s residency celebrates the 125th anniversary of Princeton University Concerts, which has details of his visits, related discussions and events and curated concerts on its website, www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
On Saturday, April 27, at 4 p.m. students are invited to a free but ticketed concert where Dudamel will conduct the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club at the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial. The program will feature Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn. Tickets will be available at noon on April 1 on Princeton University Concerts’ website and by calling 609-258-9220.
On Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m. youth from Trenton Music Makers and their guests from the El Sistema NJ Alliance (ESNJA) plus Play on, Philly! and OrchKids of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will join for El Sistema: Festival Performance. This tradition in the El Sistema movement will bring students together with Dudamel working with the programs’ instructors. The public concert will be held in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, Princeton University, during the annual Communiversity celebration. ESNJA is a consortium of El Sistema-inspired programs in Newark, Patterson, Camden, East Orange, and Union City.
Pucciatti’s Boheme Opera New Jersey will mount a fully staged production of Verdi’s monumental “Aida” on Friday and Sunday, April 5 and 7. Performances are at the College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. www.bohemeopera.com.