Simón Bolívar Orchestra Lifts Youth in a Troubled Nation

Friday, December 07, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Gustavo Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu at the Musical America Awards at Lincoln Center, Dec. 6, 2012 Gustavo Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu at the Musical America Awards at Lincoln Center (Brian Wise/WQXR)

When conductor Gustavo Dudamel brings the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) to Carnegie Hall as the culmination of a 14-day, five-city US tour, many of its 200 musicians will have traveled a long way from lives of desperate poverty, crime and violence.

The orchestra is based in Caracas, Venezuela, one of the most violent cities in the Western hemisphere. It registered 3,218 homicides during the first 10 months of this year, putting it easily on track to beat last year’s toll of 3,488 homicides, according to CICPC, the national police agency. Last year, there were 19,336 homicides in Venezuela, ranking it higher than neighboring Colombia or Mexico, which is plagued by a drug war.

At the same time, the SBSOV has dramatically climbed the ranks of classical music since its last visit to Carnegie Hall, in 2007, receiving awards, a major-label contract, “60 Minutes” profile, and millions of views on YouTube. The orchestra has played at the BBC Proms and participated in a three-week residency in Los Angeles. It has also graduated, dropping "youth" from its name last year because the players’ average ages have risen into the 20s.

The SBSOV was for decades the flagship ensemble of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education system that takes underprivileged children from decaying slums and bullet-scarred shantytowns to a vast network of regional music schools and youth orchestras. The program is the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, an economist and pianist who believes that music can help children from impoverished circumstances achieve their full potential and thus promote social change.

The program has taken more than a million children between the ages of 2 and 18, the majority of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons. About 100,000 now participate. (The program has also been adapted internationally as a vehicle for social change, and dozens of El Sistema-inspired programs exist throughout the U.S.)

Among El Sistema’s most famous graduates is Dudamel, who entered the program as a ten-year-old violinist and now, at 31, is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has not only helped to put a young, multicultural face on an art form often perceived as graying and elitist, but also continued to champion the cause of El Sistema. “The Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, for us is like a family,” he said in a video interview for Carnegie Hall. “It’s not like the relation of a regular orchestra and conductor.”

While the SBSOV has recorded two albums of mainstream repertoire by Beethoven and Mahler, it naturally advocates for Latin American composers. For the Dec. 10 Carnegie Hall performance, which WQXR will broadcast live, the orchestra is spotlighting two lesser-known pieces – Chavez's Sinfonia india and Orbon's Tres versiones sinfónicas – along with Revueltas’s La noche de los Mayas.

Dudamel has called Revueltas the “Latin American Stravinsky,” and for good reason: his 30-minute suite, a portrait a tribe of traditional Mayans, features obsessive ostinato rhythms, wild brass outbursts, and a final sacrificial frenzy, analogous to The Rite of Spring.

Before the concert gets underway, there will be a Carnegie performance by the SBSOV’s brass ensemble (Dec. 7) a panel discussion with Abreu, the El Sistema founder (Dec. 8), neighborhood concerts and a family concert (Dec. 9). On Thursday night, Dudamel and Abreu collected awards at Lincoln Center from Musical America, which has named them Musician of the Year and Educator the Year, respectively. (Both men were mobbed at the event when they first arrived, as numerous cell phone cameras were held aloft and some industry types angled for autographs.)

“Rarely has a young artist captured the public fancy so completely,” said editor Sedgwick Clark on the publication’s website. “The timing was simply right."

Brian Wise/WQXR

Gustavo Dudamel accepts his award as Musical America's "Musician of the Year" at Lincoln Center on Thursday. Right: Editor Sedgwick Clark. "We live day by day," said Dudamel in his acceptance speech. "We have rehearsal, we play and we love what we do. As simple as that. It's only a pleasure to be a musician."

Brian Wise/WQXR
Gustavo Dudamel greets music industry executives at the Musical America awards ceremony Thursday night at Lincoln Center. To his right is José Antonio Abreu.
Brian Wise/WQXR

Dr. José Antonio Abreu receives the award for 'Educator of the Year' at the Musical America Awards at Lincoln Center. Speaking through an interpreter, he said that El Sistema is now expanding to work with mentally handicapped children and in prisons.


More in:

Comments [3]

Raquel from Buenos Aires

Escribo en español pq soy agentina.
Bendito sea el maestro Gustavo Dudamel. Benefactor de los niños indigentes
de Venezuela.
Un orgullo para ese desdichado país.
Nosotros no tenemos esa suerte...
Gracias WQXR por el placer que nos brinda!!!

Jan. 10 2013 09:15 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

GUSTAVO DUDAMEL is the most exciting maestro on the world stages today. His Carnegie Hall concert of Latin American music was exhjiarating and joyous and memorable, REALLY HISTORIC !! MERRY XMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR !!! HANDEL'S ORATORIOS ARE THE MOST REVERED OF HIS COMPOSITIONS. ONE THAT IS NOT AS OFTEN PERFORMED AS IT DESERVES TO BE IS HIS "JUDAS MACCABAEUS." ITS "SOUND AN ALARM"' IS STIRRING. IT'S MY CLOSING SELECTION ON MY SOLO DEBUT IN THE ISAAC STERN AUDITORIUM OF CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT "{LIVE" ON MY VALHALLA RECORDS CD AND MAY BE DOWNLOADED,FREE, FROM MY THREE WEBSITES. My cousin MICHAEL BLANKFORT wrote both the books and screenplays for the 1953 film THE JUGGLER Hollywood film made in Israel starring KIRK DOUGLAS and the 1950 Hollywood film BROKEN ARROW starring JAMES STEWART and JEFF CHANDLER [Cochise]. The music for THE JUGGLER was composed by opera composer GEORGE ANTHEIL, in whose opera VOLPONE I sang the tenor leading role [Mosca] in its professional world premiere in NEW YORK in 1953. ANTHEIL, famous for his opera TRANSATLANTIC and BALLET MECHANIQUE looked exactly like Peter Lorre. I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I opened my three hour concert with the Invocazione di Orfeo from Jacopo Peri's opera EURIDICE composed in 1600, the first opera, composed in the same year as Shakespeare wrote HAMLET. It can be heard from the live performance along with my performances of SIEGFRIED, GOTTERDAMMERUNG SIEGFRIED, OTELLO, ELEAZAR, SIEGMUND, LOHENGRIN, PARSIFAL, TRISTAN AND WALTHER VON STOLZING on my three websites,, ,, and It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. My voice teachers were the legendary MET OPERA singers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. In another commentary on one commented about all operas that were once NEW but now not new and therefore should be relegated to museum status. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. However, it's important to revere and enjoy the MASTERPIECES of art, music, literature, architecture and science in its multiple formats . I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles

Dec. 18 2012 06:04 PM
Mary Jane Hodge from Melville

Last night I came home late and tired from work. I turned on my car radio to WQXR and the concert was about the start. I spent the next hours at the computer streaming the music from Carnegie. Wow! What an experience just to list to the sound! Thanks QXR for the broadcast. You enriched my life.

Dec. 11 2012 10:28 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Engage and interact with the WQXR hosts online.