[Yep, that's what it says: "the Los Angeles Philharmonic - arguably the
best orchestra in America..." New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, etc.,
Sunday July 29, 2007
The massed musicians surge towards the climax of the Alpine
symphony by Richard Strauss - an epic contemplation of nature,
scored for one of the biggest orchestras ever; an evocation of
mighty mountains by the composer who occupied some bridge between
fin-de-siecle romanticism and the brand of decadent modernism
of early 20th-century Vienna.
But the scene outside the concert hall could hardly be in starker
counterpoint to Alpine peaks or the final throes of Habsburg
Empire. While the young musicians and their audience had mingled
during the interval on a balcony, the landscape below was tropical
twilight: the concrete jungle of Caracas, capital of Venezuela,
during the steaming wet season, salsa throbbing from unrelenting
traffic while murals exalt the insurgent President Hugo Chavez.
Down the hills that trap the smog tumble makeshift barrios where
most of the city's 5m people gouge out a living.
Yet Strauss - or the music of any other composer - is rarely
played to this standard. Indeed, as major figures in classical
music concur, these performers - the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra
of Venezuela - are a phenomenon. Named after the man who led the
uprisings against the Spanish colonial yoke, these young musicians
are beating established European ensembles to record for the
world's most regal classical-music label, Deutsche Grammophon.
And tonight in Caracas the orchestra, under the baton of Sir
Simon Rattle, will inaugurate a new $35m Inter-American Center
for Social Action Through Music, thereby crowning the city as
one of the world capitals of music. But with a difference: these
young musicians come for the most part from desperate shantytowns,
not the conservatoires of Vienna or Berlin.
Attention has been focused on the 26-year-old prodigy conducting
Strauss, with his mop of curls reminiscent of a young Rattle,
his passion and electrifying communication with the musicians
from among whose ranks he came as a violinist: Gustavo Dudamel.
Rattle himself calls Dudamel 'the most astonishingly gifted
conductor I have ever come across'. Earlier this year, the musical
directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic - arguably the best
orchestra in America - became vacant. The orchestra chose Dudamel
after a couple of guest appearances during which the Venezuelan
shot what the orchestra's president Deborah Borda called 'contagious
joy' through the seasoned musicians. 'We had combustion,' she
said. 'We knew something remarkable had happened.'
But this is more than the story of one prodigy, himself from a
poor family on the outskirts of Barquisimeto in the Venezuelan
interior. This is about what Dudamel calls 'music as social
saviour'. He and his orchestra are but the apex of a unique
enterprise; the zenith of something deeply rooted in Venezuela,
formally entitled the National System of Youth and Children's
Orchestras of Venezuela, but known simply as El Sistema. Inspired
and founded in 1975 under the slogan 'Play and fight!' by the
extraordinary social crusader Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema
flourished with a simple dictum: that in the poorest slums of
the world, where the pitfalls of drug addiction, crime and despair
are many, life can be changed and fulfilled if children can be
brought into an orchestra to play the overwhelmingly European
And that is what happened. The road taken by Dudamel and his
orchestra is one along which some 270,000 young Venezuelans are
now registered to aspire, playing music across a land seeded
with 220 youth orchestras from the Andes to the Caribbean. Rattle,
music director of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, describes El
Sistema as 'nothing less than a miracle... From here, I see the
future of music for the whole world.' But, adds Sir Simon, 'I
see this programme not only as a question of art, but deep down
as a social initiative. It has saved many lives, and will continue
to save them.'
Across Venezuela, young barrio-dwellers now spend their afternoons
practising Beethoven and Brahms. They learn the 'Trauermarsch'
from Mahler's fifth symphony while their peers learn to steal
and shoot. They are teenagers like Renee Arias, practising Bizet's
Carmen Suite at a home for abandoned and abused children, who
when asked what he would be doing if he had not taken up the
French horn, replies straightforwardly: 'I'd be where I was,
only further down the line - either dead or still living on the
streets smoking crack, like when I was eight.' Or children like
Aluisa Patino, 11, who states plainly that she learns the viola
'to get myself and my mother out of the barrio. It's got to the
point around here,' she chirps as she leads us through a maze
of alleyways to her humble home, 'where it's much cooler to like
Strauss than salsa.'
Dudamel's rehearsals for the Alpine symphony approach their end.
It is even more compelling to watch Dudamel in rehearsal than
in performance - this combination of intensity and charm, severity
and exuberance. Rehearsing the young orchestra that has been
his life and is now his springboard, Dudamel always uses the
expression 'Let's do this', never 'Do it this way.' He talks the
musicians through the piece's meaning as well as its structure:
'Let's consider each bar as part of the whole,' he coaxes, 'as
I think Strauss wants us to feel part of the perfect union of
the whole - a philosophical reflection by man confronted with
nature.' He loves crescendos - 'Let's give it some push!' - and
as he rehearses the hushed finale which the musicians must perform
in pitch black, he exhales, as the lights dim. 'Let's take it
down - right down - slowly - turn it off"... until there is
silence and darkness. 'Ah, si!' sighs Dudamel, breaking the
spell, and everyone applauds.
Dudamel and I talk in a subterranean cave beneath the new
Inter-American Center. Just as painters prefer to talk about
colour and light more than about abstractions and personal detail,
we begin with his singular interpretation of the Alpine symphony,
which he gives an unusually human dimension. 'That,' says Dudamel,
'is exactly the special thing about what we do. We have never
played that piece before, not I nor the musicians. How can a
group of people encounter one of the great pieces about man and
nature without feeling that they matter? We talked the piece
through, tried to understand together, and play as we felt. It's
about the score, dynamics, tempo and colours, of course - but
also about feeling. We play it for the first time, but also as
though it were the last - for love.' At the Proms on 19 August,
Dudamel and the orchestra will play Shostakovich's 10th symphony
- the discourse this time not nature but the most intriguing
political narrative in 20th-century culture: Shostakovich's life
and work on the rack of Soviet communism. 'Of course, we discuss
Shostakovich's life behind the piece,' says Dudamel, 'how he
existed under Stalin, introducing nuances and codes in what he
wrote, hidden political messages in musical form...'
We continue in this vein until the irrepressible young man
recounts his own story. His father, he says, played salsa trombone,
'and that was the sound of my childhood. But there was classical
music, too, and in that regard my grandmother was my mentor.
Anyway, my arms were too short to play the trombone, however
hard I tried.' So Gustavo joined the choir at the local Nucleo
- as the Sistema's neighbourhood orchestras are called - then
took up the violin before conducting two years later. The salsa
never left Dudamel's DNA, however - as he says of leaving Caracas
for Los Angeles: 'I'll miss my orchestra, but I will never leave
them. They're family; I grew up with them. But Los Angeles is
more like meeting a girl at a salsa dance. You have a dance,
then meet her again and have another dance which is a little
more sexy. Well, one thing leads to another, and eventually you
get engaged, then married, and the honeymoon begins...'
One can't help feeling the 'family' remains Dudamel's great love.
'These musicians are my blood,' he says, 'my best friends, my
brothers and sisters. I've played with 80 per cent of them; they
don't really see me as their conductor, and I don't see myself
that way either. There's collective pressure, but in a positive
way. If a musician gets ahead of the group, the group must follow
- that's how the social aspect of El Sistema feeds the music we
make. But from now on, in Los Angeles and Gothenburg [where
Dudamel is also principal conductor] it will be different. With
every orchestra I work with, I will have to weld a relationship,
to understand its special personality, to lead and follow.'
Inevitable comparisons are made between Dudamel and his champion,
Rattle. But there is something in the mix of Dudamel's electricity
and communication with his orchestra, cranking up that extra
notch of commitment, which invokes more the indefatigable Russian
Valery Gergiev, only without the ego. (After one of his guest
performances in Los Angeles, a cellist, Gloria Lum, remarked:
'There are many conductors who are technically perfect, but they
are so taken with themselves as opposed to the music. With
Dudamel, there is no artifice, no ego.')
The Alpine symphony is particularly demanding for the bassoon,
which Edgar Monroy, 22, packs away, his hair spiked with gel.
Edgar's journey home is via Caracas's (estimable) subway, then
minibus up a steep, pitted road to the ramshackle barrio of San
Andres, into which one climbs, winding step by winding step,
past breeze-block shacks with roofs of corrugated iron and zinc
crammed together in the humid heat. Edgar's home, which he shares
with his parents, sister and baby niece, hides its poverty behind
careful upkeep and radiant pride at what Edgar has achieved.
'There are times when the rehearsals end late and I daren't come
home - it's just too dangerous; I stay in town,' says Edgar with
the puckish grin of any lad his age. He joined the local Nucleo
'and they gave me a bassoon because it was the only instrument
for which there was a vacancy'. There were no private classes -
nor money for them - just orchestral practice at Caracas racetrack
whether or not there was horse racing that day. 'It's hard to
say what happened exactly,' says Edgar. 'I fell in love with the
music, though it was strange to me. I motivated myself and started
to dream this could be my future.
'Our experience is reflected in how we play,' he says. 'Most of
us are from the barrios and that's our bond - to rise above what
happens where we live.' Edgar still has 'a few friends I used
to hang around with' who never joined, even sneered at, El
Sistema. 'People I've known since I was a kid who've become
delinquents - problems with drugs and crime. Bad things happen
every day around here. I don't often keep my instrument at home
because it's likely to get stolen. But now most of my friends
are musicians; we're a family as well as an orchestra.'
One feature of the Simon Bolivar orchestra is how many of them
leave rehearsals hand in hand. 'My girlfriend's a bassoonist,
too, called Alejandra,' says Edgar. 'You see, it's not just about
music - it's a way of looking at life and yourself. I mean, look
at me and where I live. There are kids here who never leave the
barrio for weeks, and never will. But I'm off to England, Germany
and the USA to play. Maybe it's ironic,' he reflects, 'that the
music is classical, from Europe. But it's a strong tradition and
has opened up our world, told us who Mozart and Beethoven were,
that they could be ours and give us an escape.'
We go for a walk. Some houses don't have roofs at all, and outside
one, a young man of Edgar's age sits cross-legged in a plastic
chair, his eyes glazed, skin pock-marked, motionless. Edgar
hardly notices, chatting as he climbs the steps: 'I like Brahms
best - so romantic - but my favourite is Shostakovich's ninth,
because of the long bassoon solo!'
Musicians like Edgar are not moulded overnight. They work, need
to be worked on, and often begin young. As they do at the Nucleo
in the barrio of Sarria, operating after hours at the Jose Marti
Bolivarian School. 'In school,' says the Nucleo's director Rafael
Elster, 'you don't see the poverty outside. You watch these kids
play, but sometimes their parents are the drug dealers and car
thieves.' It is in these barrios that Chavez offers one kind of
redemption and is heartily supported, while El Sistema offers
another, to a mixed reaction.
'At first,' says Gladiani Herrarra, a violin teacher, 'they can
reject you and the music. They're afraid of everything in their
lives, and it takes time to break down the wall.' 'There was one
girl,' recalls Rafael, 'who I asked to shut her eyes to better
listen to a piece. She refused, terrified to close her eyes with
anyone else in the room.' 'Physical abuse,' says Gladiani, 'is
often the first thing to overcome.'
People like Rafael are the spine of El Sistema. He studied trumpet
at the Juilliard in New York, has won numerous prizes and could
have embarked on a lambent career. 'But I prefer this,' he says.
'I've taught all over the world, but never enjoyed myself more.
A lot of them stay to finish other school studies only because
of the music. To be honest, some of them scare me at first. But
most of them don't have a father. I become a sort of father, and
they become my sort of children.' Genesis, 11, says her friends
'keep telling me to quit the orchestra. They think it's shit and
go around kissing boys. But I think actually they're jealous.'
Rafael mounts the podium of the school theatre and takes the
orchestra through Sibelius's Finlandia symphony. 'These are the
young kids,' he cautions. 'There's a critical point around 13.
If we can keep them, their lives will change, otherwise we lose
Many teenagers living at Los Chorros, a residential shelter for
runaway and abused children, recall lives from which few recover.
Los Chorros still exudes the aura of its former existence as a
'correctional facility' for arrested street children - there are
still bars on the windows of some buildings - but from the main
hall come the lilting melodies of Bizet's Carmen Suite. Angel
Linarez had explained that he was a car thief before training
as a musician and working for El Sistema, and now greets some
of the youngsters he taught when they were waifs a decade ago.
Miguel Nino is a swarthy cellist with long hair, but aged six
had 'fled my home in Barinas because of physical aggression by
my father', and came to the capital to make a home on its streets.
'The police caught me,' he says both simply and evasively, 'and
brought me here, where the orchestra caught my attention, something
different. And now, I play, study, want to be a professional
musician and raise a family. If I hadn't found music? Obviously
I'd have gone back on to the streets to steal, beg and take
The leader of Los Chorros's orchestra, tipped for a professional
future, is Patricia Gujavro. Her face while playing looks as
though it knows more than her 17 years should afford, but her
lachrymose expression unexpectedly vanishes when she speaks,
breezily. Patricia lives in Palo Verde barrio with her two
brothers. Her father has 'never been in the family' and her
mother disappeared to Ecuador last year. 'I've thought a lot
about what my life would have been like if I hadn't started the
violin,' she says. 'I suppose I'd be like most 17-year-old girls
in Palo Verde - hanging with the gangs and pregnant. One of my
friends is 17, with a kid and pregnant again, and no idea how
to support them. That... well, that hasn't happened to me yet.'
Her ambition, inevitably: 'to join the Simon Bolivar orchestra'-
if not, become an engineer, music having 'given me discipline,
respect for other people and for myself, unlike the other girls'.
Some of El Sistema's guiding hands have been there since the
outset, when beside Jose Antonio Abreu was a teenaged music
student called Igor Lanz, who now directs the project. 'The main
purpose,' he says, 'is not just to make music for its own sake,
but to teach the equilibrium between competition and cooperation.
To be great, you must drive towards excellence - but there's no
experience like reading off the same score, bar by bar, as
everyone else. What amazes me is that this balance is working:
the more children join the system, the standard, rather than
dilute, gets higher.'
A meeting with maestro Abreu himself is like an encounter with
a popular cardinal, between his appointments with children and
the powerful - which makes sense, since Abreu's deep Catholic
faith has been almost as much a propulsion as his love of music.
He exudes a sense of iron will wrapped in wisdom and civility,
describing his own childhood experience of music as 'immense joy
in a place where life was hard'. Parallel to his studies in
Caracas as an organist and composer, Abreu took an economics
degree purely, he insists, because he could entwine it around
the music curriculum. And through the social work his degree
entailed, 'I realised the magnitude of poverty and misery in
Venezuela.' Abreu even served as president of the Economic
Planning Commission and minister of culture, but a combination
of disillusionment and health problems made him leave politics
and 'devote myself entirely to music. And I found insidious the
situation whereby access to music had become the privilege of
the elite. The more I had studied Beethoven the man as well as
the composer, the more I realised how outraged he would be by
such a situation. Beethoven was a man of profound democratic
humanism and thus I set out to create a means whereby music could
be a way of vindicating the rights of the masses.'
El Sistema sank roots in Venezuelan society deep enough to survive
the winds - hurricanes, indeed - of tumultuous political change,
military coups and now the Chavez revolution. El Sistema is
probably, and remarkably, the only organism immune to politics
in one of the world's most highly politicised societies. Chavez
made a point of taking the Simon Bolivar orchestra with him when
he attended his first South American heads of state summit in
Brazil in 2000, but so, probably, would the conservative opposition
if it were in power. 'We are a national asset,' says Abreu,
'whoever rules the country. We are part of the community; local
governments compete to have an orchestra as good as the neighbouring
What was the greatest moment, I asked Dudamel, when he had to
pinch himself to believe it was happening - Berlin? La Scala?
Getting the job in California? 'I think it was when Maestro Abreu
called me, told me I was to conduct the youth orchestra, and
hung up. I ran down the corridor shouting. Then again, I think
it was when I married my wife. But I'm one of those people for
whom every moment is the best.'
The rehearsal resumes and focuses on a particularly difficult
sequence for trumpets, Dudamel is in dialogue with a remarkable
young man called Wilfrido Galarraga who rides his motorbike from
the barrio of La Vega to the Caracas university each morning to
work on his thesis on the methodology of music teaching before
moving on to rehearse. The thesis, he says, 'is about how children
can learn from lives of composers like Verdi, with his political
views, or Tchaikovsky's romanticism and homosexuality. These
are interesting people, and this way we both educate children
and break away from the idea that classical music is for the
upper classes and the rich.'
La Vega is a barrio both as desperate and defiant as the rest,
but Wilfrido insists: 'I don't like this characterisation. Yes,
La Vega is economically marginalised and these problems are with
us, but most people cross town to work.' However, he says, 'when
I joined the children's orchestra, it changed not only my life
but the lives of my family. My father was drinking far too much,
and all my brothers had dropped out of school. When I got hooked
on my instrument, my father stopped drinking, and one by one my
brothers went back to school.' We talk about Wilfrido's future,
and that of the orchestra, making an analogy with the Brazilian
national football team, hardly any of whom play in Brazil. How
many will be picked off, like the double bassist Edicson Ruiz,
who recently became the youngest musician ever to join the Berlin
Philharmonic? 'I think many will stay,' says Wilfrido. 'We're a
community. But we are only too aware that for every one of us,
there are 10 more young people easily capable of taking our
place. I'm not sure where my future lies but I am certain of one
thing: that however good people say our orchestra is, the
generation coming up behind us will be better than we are.'
The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performs at the Edinburgh
Festival on 17 August and BBC Proms on 19 August. Their second
album on Deutsche Grammophon, Mahler's Symphony No5, is released
on 13 August.
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