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Playing for Gustavo

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When I was four years old, my classical music-loving grandmother told my mom that she would pay if I was enrolled in Suzuki violin lessons. The family story goes that she never did pony up, but today I am a professional classical musician and that is how it all started. I am the assistant principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I grew up on Cape Cod and took both piano and violin lessons from a very early age. In middle school, I started taking lessons and playing in youth orchestras in Boston, and I switched from violin to viola in high school when it looked like almost our entire viola section would be graduating the next year. From a young age I began to say that I wanted to be a musician and I never wavered from that. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard, where I studied viola privately in addition to my studies in Modern European History, and followed up with a master's degree at The Juilliard School. About a week before my Juilliard commencement, I won a position with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. I had a wonderful experience there, but partly in order to line up careers with my husband, I auditioned for and joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic one year later. That was in 2005.

I absolutely love my job. In fact, one of my closest friends, a college classmate, and I used to fantasize about our dream job--playing with a symphony orchestra (his name is Johnny Lee and he is now my colleague at the Phil!). Being an orchestra musician is great, but being with a group like the L.A. Phil really puts things over the top. We play in as beautiful a hall as I've seen anywhere in the world, and we definitely have one of the most enthusiastic and committed audiences in this country. The fact that we know have Gustavo Dudamel as our music director is thrilling. We really have everything we could ask for at the Phil, and now that Gustavo is in charge, I'm hoping he will help us become the best orchestra we can be.

(I should say here that it is difficult writing about Mr. Dudamel. I am used to referencing conductors by their last names, or calling them 'maestro,' which is standard practice in orchestras. However, he once seemed genuinely offended that I referred to him by his last, not first name, in his presence, so I try to call him Gustavo).

Playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at our summer home, the Hollywood Bowl, is very different from playing the rest of the year at downtown's Disney Hall. For one thing, in addition to our usual classical fare, we perform with artists in a variety of genres, from Vince Gill to Harry Connick Jr. to Belle and Sebastian. Also, whereas during most of the year we spend a full week and sometimes several preparing for a program of concerts, in the summer we often perform a program with just one rehearsal and one concert. This is a great setup for the orchestra to try out young and lesser known conductors. However, with such a brief rehearsal, a conductor must be excellent and exciting for them to be memorable to the orchestra. I have played for a number of completely forgettable conductors in my nine years as a professional orchestra member. On the other hand, sometimes something magical can happen in that short time span, and that is certainly what happened when Gustavo stepped onto the podium for his first time at the Bowl in August of 2005.

This was Gustavo's first time conducting a U.S. orchestra and he was a complete unknown to everybody on stage. We were performing Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony, a piece we have all played many times before. With infectious energy, Gustavo brought a piece that is easy to grow tired of to life and had us laughing and playing our best. If you've seen any of the many television programs like 60 Minutes featuring Gustavo and his Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony over the past couple of years, you will know just what I'm talking about. If you had asked me if I though that just a few years later, Gustavo Dudamel would be the next music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, I would not have been surprised, but I would have been delighted!

Take the occasion on which it was announced to the orchestra that Gustavo would be the next music director. After a rehearsal with our former director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, we were all asked to stay for an important announcement. Esa-Pekka stood before us and announced that he would be ending his 17-year tenure as music director in order to focus more on his career as a composer. It was a very moving occasion. Seventeen years is a long, healthy time for a relationship between orchestra and music director, so while it was not surprising to hear Esa-Pekka's announcement, it was truly sad. This announcement was followed by one from the orchestra's president, Deborah Borda, who told us that we would start in 2009 with Gustavo as our next music director. We were thrilled! It was an amazing experience to feel such joy and sadness at the same time. Neither announcement was diminished by the other. It was a wonderful moment that I will never forget.

I have now had many experiences playing for and spending time with Gustavo. Playing for Gustavo requires a ton of energy. Whether you're in a rehearsal or a concert, he asks for every ounce of musicianship you have in you, at all times. His energy seems boundless. It's exhausting! However, it's a good feeling to have tried your hardest, and in a way, I feel like I'm back in youth orchestra when everything was fresh and exciting. It's easy to start feeling like being in the orchestra is a job, which it is of course, but it is a gift of a job, and Gustavo reminds you of that.

Gustavo is one of the nicest people I've ever met. When not on the podium, he seems to try so hard to be a member of the orchestra, not its leader. I remember times on tour when he would be with our management, sitting at the front of the plane, while the rest of us boarded. Every flight he would stand there, and greet us all as we boarded. He loves to have fun and a few times on tour he looked like he wanted to run away from our management's watchful eye and get a little crazy! And my favorite Gustavo memory is probably when I auditioned for assistant principal viola job (I was previously a rotating section member). When Gustavo told me I had won, happy tears came to my eyes and he told me not to cry or else he would start as well! That's what he's like.

Although last year was officially Gustavo's first year as music director, he had so many previously scheduled engagements around the world that we didn't actually see all that much of him. This year, we will be working together a lot, and taking an ambitious European tour. It'll be exhausting. I can't wait!

For information about the new season of Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts featuring Dana and Gustavo, go to www.laphil.org.