Juan Felipe Molano

By Scott MacClellandJF Molano headshot

Next week, Juan Felipe Molano returns to Salinas to rehearse and conduct Youth Orchestra Salinas (YOSAL) in their seasonal concert at Salinas High School. In a manner of speaking, the concert (next Wednesday) represents a culmination of Molano’s work with YOSAL. After only 16 months, Molano, who came to Salinas as music director of YOSAL, was plucked to lead Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA).

The YOLA position was of course an opportunity Molano could hardly refuse. It tied him directly to YOLA’s sponsor, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and its internationally acclaimed music director, Gustavo Dudamel. (Both Molano and YOLA made their debut in the “Toyota Symphonies for Youth” series last Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.)

Molano and Dudamel are both products of El Sistema, the music education ‘system’ developed in Venezuela to offer youngsters an alternative to a life of crime and drugs. Indeed, put the two of them side by side and you might be forgiven for suspecting they are brothers or cousins; each is short in physical stature, wears dark curly hair, and deports a charismatic personality. But while Dudamel is the superstar product of Venezuela’s El Sistema, Molano is a native of Colombia which, after Venezuela, has nurtured its own version of El Sistema, Batuta, not surprisingly borne of almost identical social-economic circumstances. (For several years, Molano has served as National Symphonic Director of Batuta.)

So where does that leave YOSAL after next week’s concert? Not to worry. YOSAL remains part of an extended network with close ties to the LA Phil and YOLA—and Molano himself as ‘ambassador’—that includes El Sistema programs in San Rafael, Sonoma, Stockton, San Diego and other areas.

In August, after the YOLA announcement, Molano was quoted by Walter Ryce of Monterey County Weekly, “The board hasn’t said anything [to me] about my replacement. We are negotiating some kind of contract so I will be able to come [back] four times throughout the year to conduct concerts.” He added, “The stability of the LA Phil makes me feel good. YOLA is the most important [El Sistema] in the U.S. and internationally.”

Molano is also expected to develop El Sistema projects around the greater LA area, and notes each presents its own challenges. “It’s hard to find trained teachers who stay in different areas,” he says. “I do see areas where we have many opportunities, like El Monte or Huntington Park, but it’s hard for me because I don’t know these communities yet. Echo Park has been targeted because of its low-income families.” But he warns that “It’s not just for low-income areas. We had sites in Colombia including high income areas that were actually underserved.” As an example, he cites kids from families of means who spend their free time playing video games.

Even after relocating to LA suburb Arcadia, Molano was able to spend time with YOSAL in October, “when I was there to conduct the Monterey Symphony.” That was for the Symphony’s season-opening live performances during screenings of Disney’s Fantasia. For his concert next week, he consulted with area teachers in settling on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnole, Holst’s Jupiter, music by JS Bach and an arrangement into a symphony of works by various classical composers. “The repertory was chosen by the teachers,” he says, adding “We know each other very well.” He likewise is in continual consultation with other teachers affiliated with El Sistema programs in Northern California. Of his consulting and exchanging ideas with them, he is pleased to say, “They support me a lot.” He expects to be engaged with another YOSAL concert in February.

In 2009, Mark Churchill of the New England Conservatory (NEC), in connection with José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema’s Nobel-nominated founder, launched El Sistema in the US. Abreu “fellows” began spreading the message around the US. Later called the Sistema Fellows Program, its ‘graduates’ over the last five years number 50, and have extended their program development abroad as well. But in 2011, NEC’s president, Tony Woodcock, quoted in the Boston Globe, said, “We really felt this was outside our mission altogether.” NEC, no stranger to controversy of its own making, appeared to have given mixed signals, praising El Sistema, supporting its fellows, yet divorcing it in the same breath. “This year was the last one,” Molano says of El Sistema at NEC, crediting Churchill for his ongoing dedication.

Meanwhile, the LA Philharmonic linked up with prestigious Bard College in upstate New York and its Longy School of Music in Cambridge (across the Charles River from the NEC) to offer a one-year Masters Degree in teaching with an emphasis on El Sistema.

(It should be noted that El Sistema has been the target of some skeptics. Geoffrey Baker’s El Sistema: Orchestrating Venzuela’s Youth has promised to investigate the career of its founder, José Antonio Abreu, “and the ideology and organizational dynamics of his institution.”)

This coming March, Dudamel and the LA Phil will be touring China, South Korea and Japan. In tandem, Molano and YOLA will visit Japan, especially Fukushima which suffered profound destruction and loss of life following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.