Super abundance

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; James Levine’s Berg and Mahler; Measha Brueggergosman at Jordan Hall
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 13, 2007
UTTER SIMPLICITY: The following night, Levine, Christian Tetzlaff, and the BSO gave us a Berg
Violin Concerto that was sophisticated, subtle, and expansive.

“Something absolutely extraordinary is happening in Venezuela,” announced Tony Woodcock, the new president of the New England Conservatory, to a cheering, sold-out Symphony Hall. He was talking about the State Foundation for the Venezuelan System of Youth and Child Orchestras (FESNOJIV, more popularly known as “El Sistema”), the music program for impoverished Venezuelan children and teenagers that Dr. José Antonio Abreu started in Caracas 32 years ago and that now serves 250,000 students, employs 15,000 music teachers in 90 music schools, and “fuels” 30 professional orchestras. It could be the world’s most significant force for social change through art.

El Sistema’s most visible success is the 26-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who’s just been hired by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as its next music director. Two summers ago, Dudamel made a brilliant BSO debut conducting Bernstein, Beethoven, and Falla at Tanglewood. He grew up in El Sistema and at 17 became the leader of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the top-ranking Venezuelan student ensemble, with players between the ages of 12 and 26. They now have a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and are making their first North American tour, with concerts in LA, Boston, and Carnegie Hall. The Boston visit was arranged by the New England Conservatory, which has a “friendship agreement” with El Sistema, and co-sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Celebrity Series of Boston. It was the hottest ticket in town. And it was preceded by a day-long conference/symposium at NEC discussing the possibilities of how a country with increasingly limited arts funding (the USA) might learn from Venezuela.

The Symphony Hall program was originally announced as Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, and a selection of Latin American pieces. A few weeks before the concert, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (it’s on the SBYO’s first DG release, along with the Fifth) was added to demonstrate the orchestra’s classical training. Speeches and presentations from the mayor’s office, just-defeated Boston city councilor Felix Arroyo (who got a nice hand), the Venezuelan ambassador to the US, and the Venezuelan consul general and his daughter made for an extremely long evening. But the musical excitement increased and multiplied, and by the time the concert was over, more than three hours after it had begun, the excitement seemed unstoppable. The audience included more young people and children and people of color than you usually encounter at Symphony Hall. After three encores, Dudamel mimed exhaustion and begged the crowd to let the performers rest.

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