Youth orchestra of Venezuela's poor wows the world

Venezuela's Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra arrives next week at the New England Conservatory. What drives this revolutionary group of musicians?

The studios and rehearsal halls of Boston's New England Conservatory are far from the nucleos scattered throughout Venezuela – some of them converted factories or prisons where underprivileged children as young as 2 learn Beethoven and Brahms.

So the Conservatory's longstanding relationship with the Venezuelan music system might seem unlikely, until you look beneath the surface.

"Venezuela is a land of music, a land of inspiration," says Mark Churchill, dean of Preparatory and Continuing Education at the school. "The Venezuelans are striving for the same values in classical music as are people at the conservatory. It's a natural joining of forces."

For the past year, Mr. Churchill has been preparing for next week's 2-1/2 day visit from the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the crowning jewel of the Venezuelan system (or El Sistema, as it is commonly called). The 200-member orchestra's dazzling reputation has preceded its first major tour of the United States, which includes performances tonight at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and at New York's Carnegie Hall on Nov. 12.

No less an illustrious figure than Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic has called the Venezuelan system the most important thing happening anywhere for the future of classical music, and its wild-haired director, Gustavo Dudamel – who was tapped for the directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting in 2009 – the most gifted young conductor he has come across.

The SBYO's arrival in Boston is a landmark event both for the young orchestra itself, and for the NEC, which will benefit from an influx of raw musical energy. "You just don't know what [the orchestra] is about until you come face to face with it," says Churchill.

Churchill encountered the group in 2000 when he was looking to start a hemisphere-wide youth orchestra. He found a natural partner in José Antonio Abreu, the organist, economist, and politician who founded El Sistema in 1975 out of a desire to bring classical music to the country's poorest children. From the 11 children who attended the first meeting in a Caracas parking garage to gradually growing numbers at subsequent rehearsals, the system today boasts some 250,000 members, who study in nearly 250 nucleos and play in scores of orchestras organized by members' ages. Besides teaching its young members music, the program has also served as a family for many, giving them hope and a sense of accomplishment.

"Very early on, the members are equipped with excellent values and a feeling of accomplishment and solidarity by being so extraordinarily involved in music," says Igor Lanz, executive director of the foundation that oversees El Sistema. "They are prepared to be better citizens for society."

A common purpose

Since 2001, there have been short-term student and teacher exchanges between the conservatory and Venezuela, and around 250 students with the conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (a group for musicians up to 18 years of age) have traveled to Venezuela to play. Those who have taken part say their Venezuelan peers have much to teach them.

"The way the Venezuelans play music is exactly how I always thought it should be played," says Joshua Weilerstein, a violinist at the New England Conservatory who was invited to join the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra's current tour after two previous trips to Venezuela. "I think American musicians are incredibly enthusiastic, but there isn't a desperation about the way we play. [The Venezuelans] play as if their lives depend on every note. There's complete passion."

There is also a sense of collectivism and common purpose that might be sacrificed in an emphasis on individual training. "In Venezuela, the most important thing is the orchestra," Mr. Dudamel told The Independent in September. "You create a community, a shared objective."

Why the Venezuelan program, a seemingly obvious model for many places, is not better-known in this country might come down to politics. The administration of current president Hugo Chávez funds most of its $29 million annual budget, and Mr. Chávez, moved by the success of the program in Europe, has pledged to expand it.

With relations between the US and the Chávez administration often tense – and given Chávez's avowed anti-Americanism – shunning the US in favor of European venues might have been more expedient. But Churchill believes that "music will transcend" political discord and "be a model for harmonious relations."

'Freshness, excitement, and energy'

The US tour has given the SBYO the chance to raise its profile in some of the country's most prestigious venues: the Walt Disney Hall, Davies Hall in San Francisco, Symphony Hall in Boston, and Carnegie Hall. Additionally, in Los Angeles, the orchestra's visit coincides with the announcement of a plan to create a program modeled on El Sistema. In Boston, conservatory students and their Venezuelan counterparts will perform in mixed chamber groups for Boston schools and in a larger joint concert at the conservatory's Jordan Hall.

The brief visit will also join two distinct approaches to musicmaking, one that's been refined over the course of 140 years and another that is younger, less structured, and more spontaneous.

"The conservatory has a really strong tradition that has value anywhere," says Aristides Rivas, a 28-year-old cellist who grew up in El Sistema and who now teaches at the conservatory. "In Venezuela, we don't have that, but what Venezuela does have is freshness, excitement, and energy, which can sometimes be overlooked in a more traditional approach. The end result can only be greater enjoyment of music on both sides."

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