Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles fellows represent the future of classical music

By Brian Marks

Violinist Sydney Adedamola is one of four Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles fellows that are breaking down cultural barriers in classical music. Photo by Ben Gibbs.

A symphony orchestra is a rare kind of musical survivor, an institution that can produce the most delicate wisps of sound as easily as it channels the fury of an Olympian god. These centuries-old institutions can serve as living musical museums that celebrate the great Western art of the past millennium, even as they also perform the most forward-looking music made today. But the orchestral connection to the past isn’t only obvious in their repertoire — these organizations also tend to be overwhelmingly white,
at odds with diverse populations across the globe.

Ethnic homogeneity isn’t always the case, of course, as orchestras are continuing to hire more musicians, conductors and executives of color. In some cases, though, more deliberate change is necessary to bring musical opportunities to aspiring musicians in underserved communities.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), based in Westchester with its office bordering Ladera Heights, radically upends the standard assumptions about majority-white institutions. The nonprofit orchestra describes itself as the largest majority African-American orchestra in the United States.

Collaborating with the USC Thornton School of Music and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, ICYOLA has recently founded the Los Angeles Orchestra Fellowship, a program that allows four post-graduate string musicians to continue their training while providing mentorship to members of its youth orchestra.

The fellowship’s goal: Prepare the fellows for successful auditions with elite orchestras, thereby changing the composition of orchestras musician by musician.

Meanwhile, ICYOLA is rapidly growing its own ranks.

“In 2009, a group of nine African-American high school instrumentalists asked me to work with them that summer on the development of repertoire and technique,” says ICYOLA Executive Director Charles Dickerson. “These were already young people who could play with some degree of proficiency. By the end of the summer we were up to 24. We put on a little recital, and at the conclusion of the recital the kids said, ‘Hey, we want to keep this going.’ By the end of the next year we were almost 60.”

The youth orchestra rehearses just up the road from ICYOLA’s Westchester headquarters at Knox Presbyterian Church in Ladera Heights. The young musicians rehearse at the church on Sunday evenings.

In attendance at each rehearsal are the four new fellows: violinist Sydney Adedamola, violinist Ayrton Pisco, violist Bradley Parrimore, and cellist Juan-Salvador Carrasco. Their fellowship lasts two years, during which the musicians pursue graduate certificates at USC and perform with LACO musicians. Although the four play in large ensembles, they also work together as the South Central String Quartet, a configuration that requires enormous delicacy and clear communication to make compelling music.

“I really think the secret lies in listening,” explains Lina Bahn, an associate music professor at USC and an accomplished violinist and chamber musician who is coaching the quartet. “You can have great chops and technique, but if you don’t have the capability to listen and respond, then communication just is not possible. I think for this group, they really have that. They blend well, their temperaments are really well matched, and even the way they talk to each other outside the quartet shows how they consider each other’s points of view and opinions.”

Inaugural ICYOLA fellows Ayrton Pisco (top left; violin), Juan-Salvador Carrasco (right; cello), Bradley Parrimore (middle left; viola) and violinist Sydney Adedamola (bottom left) are on a two-year journey to train for elite orchestras and mentor young musicians. Photos by Ben Gibbs

The four fellows hail from across the Americas. Adedamola is from Boston, Parrimore is from Houston, Pisco is originally from Brazil, and Carrasco was born in Mexico City, though he has spent most of his life living in Santa Monica.

When she was younger, it was easy for Adedamola, who’s half Nigerian, not to consider the racial makeup of the musicians she worked with. Moving to Los Angeles and attending USC has changed some of those perceptions.

“I grew up in a pretty small town outside Boston, and even when I would go into the city, it was always music stuff, which tends to not be very diverse,” says Adedamola. “Looking back at my life and realizing there weren’t many role models that looked like me is a challenging thing to deal with, and something I’m growing more and more passionate about changing. I want to get myself to a place where I can potentially be that role model for other people.”

Carrasco’s parents, a filmmaker and a violinist, encouraged him to pick up a string instrument at an early age. He chose the cello over the violin due to its lower register (and being able to sit while playing). The choice has paid off: Unlike the other three fellows, Carrasco was already working to complete a graduate program at USC and was given a late audition after a suitable cellist failed to materialize.

Fellowship participation has taught Carrasco to value opportunities to nurture younger musicians.

“It’s hard to realize how much you can learn from teaching,” says Carrasco. “It’s something that isn’t intuitive until you start doing it. You realize the actual process of teaching and communicating ideas that you’ve taken for granted and breezed by for so long really helps you as well. It’s like getting to see the instrument through new eyes again, as if you didn’t know how anything worked, because that’s what you’re trying to communicate to someone who’s a lot more unfamiliar with the instrument.”

Many of the musicians in the youth orchestra will not become professionals, but Carrasco still finds great value in amateur music making.

“A lot of classical music was originally performed as a social thing among friends,” he says. “You get a very different experience of music when you’re part of making it. The fact that ICYOLA gives anyone a chance at being able to be part of making music is a great thing.”

The orchestral fellows perform with guest musicians from the New York Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 23, in Newman Recital Hall at the University of Southern California, 3616 Trousdale Parkway, South L.A. Admission is free with RSVP at

Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles performs with the fellows at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4, at Holy Name of Jesus Church, 1955 W. Jefferson Blvd., South L.A. Admission is free.