West Coast more attuned to Asian, Latino cultures

A Japanese diplomat working out of his government's Washington D.C. embassy asked me the other day whether the West Coast was more attuned, interested and involved with the Pacific Rim than was perhaps the East Coast.

The answer to the Japanese diplomat's question is yes. And I say this with the greatest respect to my East Coast colleagues.

The reasons go beyond the usual. Yes, it's true that California is in fact home to more Asian-born and Asian-American individuals than any other state. It's also true that the greatest concentration of Koreans outside of Seoul reside in California (345,882 according to the 2000 U.S. Census); and even once lily-white Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, is beginning to resemble (in its non-coastal interior especially) some sort of sprawling pan-Southeast Asian suburbia.

And, yes, California is, as the proverbial crow flies, geographically closer to East Asia than New York.

But there's another, subtler point I'd like to convey to that thoughtful diplomat from Japan stationed, perhaps even somewhat morosely, in Washington. The point is that the West Coast in general, from Vancouver to Seattle to Los Angeles to San Diego, is simply a more open place.

It's more open to the new, to the young, to the edgy and to the profound. And it often looks forward instead of looking backwards. It likes to take a chance, rather than play it safe. Europe is a very nice place to visit, but if you're interested in the future, we here on the West Coast look either across the Pacific to Asia or south to Latin America.

A case in point that may at first seem minor but actually is major: Earlier this week the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that in two years a new principal conductor will be dazzling us from its podium. Its current conductor, the classy and stylish Esa-Pekka Salonen, will be stepping down in order to compose more music. Salonen, who is from Finland, is all of 48 years of age.

His successor will be Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel, and he is all of 26. The older sisters and brothers who run the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society could have snared practically any older, European conductor it wanted. Under Salonen, who conducts with inspired fever and bite, the L.A. Phil's international reputation is probably second to none, and its home acoustical stadium - the acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall - is famous for allowing the music to be heard in all its full majesty, unlike at some venerable halls back on the East Coast.

It's hard to imagine too many cities with the vision to offer one of its most important positions to someone who's not from Europe and is less than, oh, 60 years of age. But open places are just like that. They take chances, they welcome the young and they look to take the gamble.

In Los Angeles the elected leader of the city is a talented Latino politician, Antonio Villaraigosa, but in the final analysis his position as mayor is a weak one structurally; arguably, in the end, he may not prove as culturally important as maestro Gustavo.

That's because the leader of the orchestra of a major metropolis is in some sense the principal philosopher of the urbanity's aural soul. From deep within the bass section and the bombastic bomb-shelters of the trombones, from inside the forests of the woodwinds and flirting up from the bird nests of the flutes, emerge the interior cultured voice of a cultured city.

Dear Japanese diplomat: the West Coast of the United States is a place that is listening to the future, not doffing earmuffs and staring into the past. The Asia-Pacific (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Latin America) is the future to which we here are listening attentively. In fact, we have just reached into your New World and absconded with one of your best and brightest. We promise to take good care of him in this increasingly Latino city and increasingly Asian state. And we promise to listen to him carefully as we always try to do to the young and to the new.

Tom Plate is a full-time adjunct professor at UCLA.


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