LOS ANGELES -- Gustavo Dudamel stands off to the side of an orchestra of T-shirt clad teens as they laboriously rehearse Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5. He's listening, not just with his ears, but also with irrepressible fingers that tap and pluck the air as if he's actually conducting the piece.
At the end, he hops on to the conductor's podium and, beaming at his rapt pupils, demonstrates that the difference between playing music and performing it is passion.
"Be wild, like the pop music," the 30-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic exhorts as he pantomimes a spirited sweep of a violin bow as the kids chuckle. "I know, I am always a pain for all the orchestras."
Dudamel's ebullient style of conducting, which sends his long dark curls bouncing as he gestures, has made him the rock star of the classical realm. He flits among concert halls on three continents and runs on a schedule that allots time down to 10-minute segments, but reserves an occasional Saturday morning to coach kids in a program that brings Beethoven to the barrios.
It was the original program in his native Venezuela, known as El Sistema – the System – that discovered his own musical talent at age 10.
With Dudamel at the forefront, Los Angeles has emerged as the national flagship of the U.S. version of the System, El Sistema U.S.A, which in just four years has grown to encompass programs in more than 50 cities.
Under the aegis of the Philharmonic, Los Angeles has the biggest Venezuelan-inspired initiative, enrolling some 500 mostly minority children in two neighborhoods where music is more likely to mean hip-hop than Hayden.
Next year the Philharmonic is stepping up its commitment by launching a teaching center to train instructors in the distinctive El Sistema method, which provides intensive musical training in way that enhances children's self-esteem.
The initiative, which also includes adding a third neighborhood program somewhere in Los Angeles County in 2013, has now become part of the Philharmonic's mission, said Deborah Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"We have an artistic imperative, but we have a social imperative, as well," she said.
It is perhaps only fitting that Los Angeles has taken the baton, since Dudamel is a dynamo behind El Sistema's global expansion and its star graduate. He is also one of more than 400,000 mostly underprivileged children who have received free music lessons in Venezuela.
The government-funded National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, as the $60 million-a-year program is formally called, has existed for 36 years, but it's only been in the last four years – as Dudamel's profile has risen on the global stage – that it's started to accelerate internationally.
El Sistema-style programs have since taken root from Australia to Great Britain as the movement has stirred the social conscience of the stuffy classical world and given a new impetus to a musical genre many see as elitist.
"It's sort of given us all new hope that classical music can be relevant and vital again," said Tricia Tunstall, author of the forthcoming book, "Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema and the Transformative Power of Music" to be published by W.W. Norton in January.
That is, well, music to the maestro's ears.
"My main goal, and it's a big one, is that every child has a chance to get close to music, as a right, as they have access to food, health, education, they get the chance to have art and culture, especially music," said Dudamel in an interview.
The secret of El Sistema's success lies in making music a community experience that's fun, said Eric Booth, a consultant to El Sistema U.S.A.
Pupils are taught almost entirely in a group setting with an intensive practice schedule of four to five days a week, as opposed to most Western music instruction, often comprised of individual lessons once a week.
About five instructors rove among the orchestra, correcting individual mistakes as the ensemble learns a musical piece as a whole. "Every child must be felt to be considered an asset," Booth said. "It never feels like work. It's pleasurable for them to be working together. It's a palpable feeling."
For 13-year-old cellist Jacob Esquivel, playing in an orchestra makes music more meaningful than solo lessons. "I was fascinated to see all the instruments come together," he said. "It makes you excited."
The method, which has produced several world-class musicians, has professionals from all over the world studying how to replicate it.
El Sistema "can develop individual musicians of tremendous virtuosity and at the same time develop music for all these children," Tunstall said. "That's a fantastic thing to pull off and very difficult. Everyone is wondering how they keep that balance."
In the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program, children from two to 17 can enroll to receive free instruments and intensive lessons. They start playing in the orchestra from age six. The program, which has a waiting list of 200 children, is paid for by the Philharmonic and several partner organizations.
The Philharmonic does not release the cost of the orchestra program, but spends over $1 million on education a year. The new teaching training program will cost about $1 million, to be shared with Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass.
Violinist Samantha Rosas, 13, who lives in South Los Angeles, said her family could never afford music lessons so she jumped at the chance to join up four years ago.
Now music has become such a passion that her parents warn they'll take it away if her grades fall. It works, she said: "If I don't get to go to orchestra, that's really threatening to me."
Parents say they never have to push their kids, even though practice can be a grueling schedule of 11 to 17 hours a week.
"They figure out a way to make it fun," said Peter Esquivel, Jacob's father. "It doesn't become work to them."
That sense of having a good time is evident in a recent rehearsal with Dudamel, who is music director for Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in addition to his Los Angeles post.
Wearing jeans and an old sweater, he wields humor as much as his baton to coax a more animated performance out of the middle-school musicians. According to the changing tempo of the Brahms piece, he acts like a forlorn lover, prancing ballerina, an angry boyfriend, and an elegant ballroom dancer.
"It's like to be in the party with different characters," he said, warning the kids his English "is not better."
For Dudamel, working with the kids brings back his own youth learning violin in the dusty heat of central-western Venezuela. By the end of the session, the kids played with a lot more verve.
"Wow, have been a huge change," Dudamel said. "This is dangerous. I want more."