Gustavo Dudamel with a member of the Trenton Central High School orchestra.

Trenton Central High School orchestra students moved over to let another musician sit with them during a recent performance — world-renowned conductor and musician Gustavo Dudamel, who joined the violin section. As part of his year-long residency with Princeton University Concerts, his January visit to Trenton conveyed the message that music should be part of students’ lives everywhere.

For the student musicians, school administrators, music faculty, and area celebrities such as singer Sarah Dash, Mayor Reed Gusciora, and others, it was affirmation, as Superintendent of Schools Frederick McDowell said, of “the power music has to change lives.”

Norberto Diaz, Trenton schools supervisor of visual and performing arts and partnerships, introduced Dudamel to the high school orchestra and its conductor, Joseph Pucciatti. While Dudamel often conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a tuxedo, he watched the student musicians from the front row of the Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School auditorium in a black sweater and sneakers. “I’m having fun,” he said, as he listened to a program that included Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” and a tribute to the late Aretha Franklin.

When he decided to sit on the stage, he agreed to play a violin selected by Hedgepeth-Williams music teacher Danny Hall (who made sure the instrument was tuned). Despite having recently broken two fingers, Dudamel played along with the students, performing a “Phantom of the Opera” medley (music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber) and “Another Day of Sun” (Justin Hurwitz) from the film “La La Land.” He swayed to the beat, and when the pieces were finished, he shook hands with most of the excited students and posed for photos.

Conductor Pucciatti — who is also the founder and conductor of the 30-year-old Boheme Opera New Jersey — praised the students, stating that they “played well because of their dedication to the music program at Trenton Central High School. They are at rehearsal every day after school. That is dedication!” Pucciatti said they play like professionals all the time. “They are a very special group of musicians. They are Trenton’s best hope for the future.”

As part of the program, Trenton music faculty and students were encouraged to ask questions. Anthony Figliano from Parker Elementary School said he was a bass baritone who has seen Dudamel conduct the Metropolitan Opera and asked how he would distinguish a good singer from a great singer. Dudamel answered that he doesn’t like to differentiate and tries to give singers space to develop. “The capacity to be inspired is the most important thing,” he said.

The 38-year-old Venezuelan violinist and conductor is the son of a trombonist and a voice teacher who experienced the El Sistema music education program that started in Venezuela. He told Trenton students that he chose the violin because many of his friends played the violin. At age 17 he was appointed conductor of the Venezuelan youth orchestra. He was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the 2009-’10 season. This season marked his debut conducting the Metropolitan Opera.

He also recounted that a key moment in his career path was playing second violin at age 9 and feeling “blessed” that he was part of the larger sound of an orchestra. “Art takes us to another place that heals our souls,” he said. “Love what you do. Believe in yourself,” he told the students.

Dudamel’s visit to Trenton was the result of his own desire to interact with urban student musicians, much like his own experience growing up under the El Sistema music education program in Venezuela, said Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts. “Working with youth is such a big part of his mission,” she says.

Princeton student Lou Chen helped make the connection with the high school orchestra. For the last two years Chen has forged a working relationship with the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) orchestra and Pucciatti, and founded not only the Trenton Youth Orchestra but the TCHS-Princeton University Collaborative Concert Series; provided TCHS Orchestra members the opportunity to watch the Princeton University Orchestra in concert; and brought Princeton student music groups to perform at the high school. Given the relationship, Seltzer thought it was an appropriate match, and said she was “thrilled” that he also played alongside them.

Diaz noted that Dudamel was eager to visit Trenton because of its emphasis on music in the schools, including its own El Sistema-inspired after school program. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think he would come to Trenton,” said Diaz, a musician himself. “I think the world of this man.” He also quoted Dudamel’s statement that “‘Music is a beautiful imperfection.’ I love that, as a musician,” he said.

This article was originally published in the April 2019 Trenton Downtowner.