Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

This article is from 2007.

Bittersweet symphonies

Carol Main meets Gustavo Dudamel, the young maestro behind the world renowned Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, which has transformed the lives of many underprivileged young people in its native Venezuela

‘If he wasn’t in the orchestra, he would have been killed by now.’ Not a flippant remark, but a realistic statement of fact by one young musician about another in a country where gang crime and drug violence are commonplace. That the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is a saviour of life, not only in terms of mortality, but also in the day to day living for children and young people, is a claim that is supported by all who play in it, hear it or are touched by it in a myriad of ways. The 200-strong group that will appear in Edinburgh is the top tier of a pyramid of musical activity. ‘El sistema’, as the 32-year-old programme is known, reaches out to impoverished areas in a country whose reliance on oil makes for a shaky economy.

Children from all backgrounds are thrown in at the deep end and are soon swimming rather than sinking. Instruments are allocated for whatever reason might present itself at the time. Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s dynamic 26-year-old conductor, who is wowing audiences wherever he appears and has recently been appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen when he steps down in 2009, is himself a product of ‘el sistema’. ‘My father played trombone in the system in 1978 and I fell in love with it. But I was ten years old and my arms were too short. So they gave me a violin. Now I am in love with it too.’ A couple of years later, playing in one of the many orchestras which feed into the main one, the not even teenage Dudamel stepped in when the conductor was sick. ‘At first we were joking, messing about, but then the orchestra started to play and it was wonderful.’ Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, staples of youth orchestra music libraries, will forever be associated in Dudamel’s mind with that first exhilarating experience of conducting.

He eventually moved on to become conductor of the system’s Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, started taking rehearsals and performances of the main symphony orchestra and the rest is history – major concerts, international tours, winning the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, support from Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, engagements from a string of top ranking professional orchestras, an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording deal and now appearances at the EIF, BBC Proms and a prestigious German tour, all of which take place in August. Dudamel’s Berlin Philharmonic debut and La Scala Milan are lined up for next year. And the conductor is still only 26.

A year older is French horn player Rafael Payares who has been in the orchestra since 1994. ‘My brother played bassoon in it and I heard the sounds of classical music coming from his bedroom. I heard the horn fanfare of the 1812 Overture and thought it was nice. So my brother took me to the orchestra and the brass tutor, who was also the conductor, gave me a horn to try. This orchestra is like a big train. You get inside it and it will take you.’

Founded by the hugely inspirational and revered maestro Jose Antonio Abreu and formally labelled Foundation of the State for the National System of the Orchestras Youth and Children in Venezuela (Fesnojiv for short), the programme is, according to Rodrigo Guerrero, who heads up its international affairs, ‘a very peculiar organisation.’

Aside from the astonishing feat of securing over 30 years of state funding across changes of government, Abreu’s vision starts with getting children out of poverty and off the streets. ‘It is a social project first and cultural project second,’ Guerrero explains. ‘We are interested in how music demands excellence. If you are not trying your best, your music will reflect this. These are the values we want to encourage.’

Now involving 250,000 children and young people across a group of more than 110 orchestras and different cells of activity, the system is proving effective and efficient. In the 1970s, Venezuela had only two professional orchestras, which were mainly made up of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy. Abreu wanted to prove that Venezuela was capable of producing its own musicians and sensibly started with young people. Their first foreign visit was to Aberdeen’s 1976 youth festival.

Starting in Caracas with 100 or so musicians, that initial ensemble has grown each year and is now working towards a new government goal of doubling numbers over the next five years. ‘Since its inception, the system has fed off itself,’ says Guerrero. Classes take place after school finishes and last until the working day is over, so they offer childcare as well as music. Parents can then work in the knowledge that their children are not running wild on the streets. ‘Very large sets of society are at risk of exclusion,’ says Guerrero. ‘Unemployment is high, the oil industry can’t harbour everyone and we are providing an alternative.’ As Dudamel himself says, ‘We are giving kids an opportunity to change their lives. It is perfect.’

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 0131 473 2000, 17 Aug, 8pm, £8–£37.

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

A celebration of Latin American music, including dances from Bernstein's 'West Side Story'. 'Part of the Edinburgh International Festival'


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