By Malcolm Gay | Boston Globe | Photos by BARRY CHIN
Ask Clarice Mullady about her upcoming trip to Los Angeles to perform with superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and the 14-year-old Boston music student will tell you she’s trying to keep it in perspective.
“We’ve played with him twice before,” said Mullady, who studies cello at the Boston String Academy, a nonprofit that provides music instruction to underprivileged kids. “It’s still a really big deal.”
Mullady is one of just 18 students from Massachusetts — 11 of them from the Boston String Academy — who have been selected to perform with Dudamel as part of this summer’s inaugural National Take a Stand Festival, a prestigious music camp hosted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in partnership with Bard College and the Longy School of Music of Bard College.
The all-expenses-paid festival will bring together some 100 pupils from programs across the country inspired by Venezuela’s national music education and youth orchestra program, El Sistema. After a week of intense study, Mullady and her peers from the Boston String Academy will make up roughly 10 percent of student players during a culminating performance with Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 22 — the largest contingent from any program in the state.
“There are many festivals that have scholarships, but this festival is meant for low-income children,” said Boston String Academy co-director Taide Prieto. “It has a social component.”
The same could be said of the Boston String Academy.
Prieto cofounded the academy six years ago with twin sisters Marielisa and Mariesther Alvarez, violinists who came up through El Sistema in their native Venezuela. The three met at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where Prieto, a cellist, arrived after playing in an El Sistema-inspired orchestra in her native Peru.
“[Those programs] made a big impact on us,” said Prieto. “We wanted to give this to children here — not just so they’ll become musicians, but so they’ll become well-rounded human beings.”
Their work at the academy has been attention-getting, said Karen Zorn, president of Longy, where the Alvarez sisters both hold faculty positions.
“I was looking for some very high-quality string teachers, and someone told me about these twins that had a program,” recalled Zorn, who sat in on an early-morning rehearsal. “It was crazy the amount of learning that was going on that early in the morning. The kids were totally engaged, and it was some of the best string teaching I’d seen in years.”
The academy now trains roughly 110 students across its three locations, in Chinatown, Allston, and Roxbury. For a maximum of $65 per week, Boston students receive private and group instruction as well as orchestra training, though Prieto said that only about 15 percent of students pay full freight. The academy, whose students range in age from 6 to 15 years old, offers both before- and after-school instruction, as well as classes during the school day.
“The kids are like little sponges,” said co-director Marielisa Alvarez. “You just have to give them the right information, and they will absorb it and respond.”
Gretchen Nielsen, vice president of educational initiatives at the LA Philharmonic, said Boston has become “a hotbed for this work.” That’s due in part to the New England Conservatory’s now-defunct Sistema Fellows Program, a five-year effort to train musicians and educators to create El Sistema-inspired programs in the United States.
“There were several who remained in Boston,” said Nielsen. “It’s also a musician-rich city, so you have a countless number of potential teachers.”
The local mantle has since been taken up by Longy, whose Sistema Side by Side initiative unites students from the state’s dozen or so El Sistema-type programs with Longy musicians in rehearsals and concerts. Some Longy graduate students, along with musicians from the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, also serve as teaching assistants at the Boston String Academy.
“There’s a big need for these programs — way more need than can be met,” said Zorn, who noted that all 18 Massachusetts students selected for the festival have participated in the Sistema Side by Side program.
Nationally, El Sistema-inspired programs have proliferated in no small part because of the Venezuelan-born Dudamel, who as artistic and music director for the LA Philharmonic is one of El Sistema’s most celebrated graduates and greatest champions.
In an e-mail, Dudamel said the upcoming festival was an integral step toward increasing accessibility to the arts “for as many people as possible.”
“Much of my work is founded on building such structures that foster creative growth,” he said. “I look forward to meeting these young students to collaborate on creating wonderful music together.”
Samuel Benaim, a 13-year-old viola student at the Boston String Academy, said he was astonished when he learned he’d made the cut to play with Dudamel.
“I was, like, freaking out, bro,” said Benaim. “He’s fresh.”
Benaim was just coming off of a group rehearsal in the basement of a Chinatown church, where Marielisa Alvarez had painstakingly led them through Jean Sibelius’s “Andante Festivo.”
Surrounded by stacked chairs, a foosball table pushed off to the side, and a piano that sat covered in the corner, Marielisa raked the air as she moved through the score, imploring them to be lighter with the bow, “like a butterfly pulsing on your hand.”
A bevy of parents used smartphones to record their many false starts. Mariesther Alvarez led the violins, pulling them forcefully along with her playing, while Prieto anchored the cellos.
“Listen to the music in your head before you play the first note,” Mariesther advised.
“The violin is up in the air, but your feet are on the ground,” added Marielisa.
“Think of it as a journey,” offered Prieto, preparing for a final run through the score.
And with bows at the ready, they began to play.