From a Burger King to a concert hall, with help from Frank Gehry

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From a Burger King to a concert hall, with help from Frank Gehry
The Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen Youth Orchestra Los Angeles Center in Inglewood, Calif. on Nov. 9, 2021. The architect Frank Gehry reconfigured a former bank and.Burger King into the program’s first permanent.home. Rozette Rago/The New York Times.

by Adam Nagourney

INGLEWOOD, CALIF.- Noemi Guzman, a 17-year-old high school senior, usually has to find a corner someplace to practice violin — the instrument she calls “quite literally, the love of my life.” But the other Saturday morning, Guzman joined a string ensemble practicing on a stage here that is nearly as grand and acoustically tuned as the place she dreams of performing one day: Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“This is beautiful,” Guzman said during a break from a practice session at the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center, her voice muffled by a mask. “To have a space you can call your own. It is our space. It is created for us.”

Inglewood, a working-class city 3 miles from Los Angeles International Airport that was once plagued by crime and poverty, is in the midst of a high-profile, largely sports-driven economic transformation: The 70,000-seat SoFi Stadium, which opened here last year, now the home of the Rams and the Chargers, will be the site of the Super Bowl in February and will be used in the 2028 Summer Olympics. Construction is underway on an 18,000-seat arena for the Los Angeles Clippers, the basketball team.

But the transformation of Inglewood, historically one of this region’s largest Black communities, is also showcased by the 25,000-square-foot building where Guzman was practicing. The building, which opened in October, is the first permanent home for the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and is the product of a collaboration between two of the most prominent cultural figures in Los Angeles: Gustavo Dudamel, artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which oversees YOLA, and Frank Gehry, the architect who designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

“This was an old bank,” said Dudamel, who has long been friends with Gehry, a classical music lover who can often be spotted in the seats of the hall he designed. “Then it was a Burger King — yes, a Burger King! Frank saw the potential. What we have there is a stage of the same dimensions as Disney Hall.”

The $23.5 million project is a high-water mark for YOLA, the youth music education program that was founded here 15 years ago under Dudamel and that he calls the signature achievement of his tenure. It serves 1,500 students from ages 5 to 18 who come to study, practice and perform music on instruments provided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was patterned after El Sistema, the youth music education program in Venezuela where Dudamel studied violin as a boy.

And it is one of the most vivid examples of efforts by major arts organizations across the country to bring youth education programs out 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 LA Commons, a community arts organization. “If you really want it to have the impact that’s possible with that program, you have to bring it out to the community. It has to be accessible.”

Gehry called that idea the “whole game.”

“It becomes not the community having to go to Disney Hall,” he said, “but the Disney Hall coming to the community.”

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 housing development (and with that, concerns about the gentrification that often follows this kind of development). Until 2016, Inglewood was known mainly as the home of the Forum, the 45-year-old arena where the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings once played before moving to what was known as the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, and Hollywood Park Racetrack, which closed to make way for SoFi Stadium.

“We’ve never been known for cultural enrichment,” Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. said. “That is why this is so important to us. What’s happening now is a rounding out of society and culture: We will no longer be known for just sports and entertainment.”

Even before the Beckmen Center opened, YOLA could be a heady experience for a school-age student contemplating a career in music. Guzman, who joined the youth orchestra seven years ago, has played bow to bow with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the baton of Dudamel. YOLA musicians have joined the Philharmonic at Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and on tours to places including Tokyo; Seoul, South Korea; and Mexico City.

Christine Kiva, 15, who started playing cello when she was 7, is now studying with cellists from the Philharmonic.

“It’s helped me develop my sound as a cellist and work on a repertoire for cello,” she said.

Inglewood is the fifth economically stressed neighborhood where the youth organization has set up an outpost. But in the first four locations, it shares space with other organizations, forced to fit in without a full-fledged performing space or practice rooms.

“We were making the project work in spaces that weren’t specifically designed for music,” said Chad Smith, chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Now, the words “Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center,” named after the philanthropists and vineyard owners who made the largest donation to the project, stretch out across the front of the renovated building overlooking South La Brea Avenue and the old downtown. Dudamel has an office there. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic regularly show up to observe practice and work with students.

This building has plenty of rooms for students to practice. There are 272 seats on benches in the main hall, which can be retracted into a wall, allowing the room to be divided in half so two orchestras can practice at once. The acoustics were designed by Nagata Acoustics, which also designed the acoustics at Disney Hall.

The building had been owned by Inglewood, which sold it to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“When we first walked into it, it still had the greasy smell of a Burger King,” said Elsje Kibler-Vermaas, vice president for learning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gehry, who had 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.

He said that when they brought him there, he was struck by the low ceilings from its days as a bank.

“I said, ‘Is it possible to make an intervention?’ ” recalled Gehry who, even at 92, is involved in a series of design projects across Los Angeles.

By cutting a hole in its ceiling and putting in a skylight, and cutting a hole in the floor to make the hall deeper, he was able to create a performance space with a 45-foot-high ceiling, close to what Disney Hall has.

“The kids will have a real experience of playing in that kind of hall,” he said.

That turned out to be a $2 million conversation; the total price, including buying the building and renovating it, 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 bustling the other day. Students had come for afternoon music instruction from elementary schools, most in Inglewood. After snacks — bananas, apples, granola bars — they raced to their lessons in reading music, percussion and how to follow a conductor.

“Pay attention!” said Mario Raven, leading his students in a singing and music reading class. “Here we go — one, two, three!”

The brass players were outdoors because of COVID-19 concerns (it’s hard to play a French horn while wearing a mask). As planes flew overhead, they performed "High Hopes" by Panic! at the Disco, suggesting that a youth orchestra need not live by Brahms and Beethoven alone.

Students typically sit through 12 to 18 hours a week of instruction for 44 weeks a year. About a quarter of them end up majoring in music. Smith said that was reflected in the broader aspirations for the program.

“Our goal wasn’t we were going to train the greatest musicians in the world,” he said. “Our goal was we were going to provide music education to develop students’ self-esteem through music.”

Dudamel said his experience as a boy in Venezuela had been formative in bringing the program to Los Angeles.

“I grew up in an orchestra where they called us, in the press, the ‘orchestra without a ceiling,’ ” he said in a Zoom interview from France, where he is now also the music director of the Paris Opera. “Because we didn’t have a place where to rehearse. We have materialized a dream where young people have the best things they can have. A good hall. Great teachers.

“Look, this is not a regular music school,” he added. “We don’t pretend be a conservatory. Maybe they will not be musicians in the future. But our goal is that they have music as part of their life, because it brings beauty, it brings discipline through art.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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