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CLASSICAL  July 2007

CLASSICAL July 2007

Subject:

Dudamel and "America's Best Orchestra"

From:

Janos Gereben <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 30 Jul 2007 00:47:33 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (391 lines)

[Yep, that's what it says: "the Los Angeles Philharmonic - arguably the
best orchestra in America..." New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, etc.,
please copy]

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/magazine/story/0,,2133790,00.html

   Sunday July 29, 2007
   The Observer
   Ed Vulliamy
   
   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
   classical repertoire.
   
   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
   them forever.'
   
   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
   drugs.'
   
   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
   one.'
   
   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.

Janos Gereben/SF
www.sfcv.org
[log in to unmask]

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