Brian Wise covers the classical music business for WQXR, including aspects of performance, technology, philanthropy and institutional trends. He manages the station's homepage and makes sure what you hear on air is what you see online. Follow him on Twitter at @Briancwise.
Simón Bolívar Orchestra Lifts Youth in a Troubled Nation
Friday, December 07, 2012 - 12:00 AM
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."