If anyone had told me 15 years ago that one of the best orchestras in the world would be a bunch of kids my age and younger from Venezuela, I would have laughed and said, "Yeah, and I'm the next Glenn Gould." Shame on me.
Poster child of Venezuela's social music education system "El Sistema" (founded by musician, economist and activist José Antonio Abreu), the Simon Bolivar Symphonic Orchestra of Venezuela (formerly known as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela -- they had a name adjustment recently as many members reached their mid- and late 20's) and music director Gustavo Dudamel make some of the greatest music today. Since their Carnegie Hall debut in 2007, they have only strengthened their repertoire, gained in experience and become seasoned professionals.
You know the old joke. "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice." And that's precisely how almost 200 young Venezuelans made it to Carnegie Hall, where tickets for the two concerts on Dec. 10 and 11 were sold out. "We started by getting together a bunch of kids in a vacant lot," Frank Di Polo, Abreu's brother in law and co-founder of El Sistema (and founder of El Sistema Bolivia) had told me. "Sometimes we practiced in people's living rooms and neighbors complained about the sound and the police came to throw us out," said Abreu of their humble beginnings at a panel discussion in Carnegie Hall recently.
The kids have turned into highly professional musicians, with none of the complacency and blasé confidence some players of some orchestras exhibit. They practice hard, and they take their rehearsals with the utmost seriousness. Whether they are playing Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or music from South America, they are completely sure of what they are doing and make music as one unified voice.
The concert on Monday opened with Mexican composer Carlos Chávez's Sinfonía India, (1935-1936) played with hearty vigor. The strings, in particular, were rich and deep -- but of course, this is a super large orchestra, incorporating nearly 200 musicians, with some sections having twice as many musicians as modern orchestras usually do. It's not often you see more than a hundred people in the strings alone.
That was followed by Spanish-born Cuban composer Julián Orbón's Tres Versiones Sinfónicas (1953) -- neoclassical and tonal, the music has a rich palette of textures, which the orchestra vividly brought to life. The Afro-Cuban rhythm-inspired third movement, in particular, was wonderfully jarring and electrifying.
For the second half, the Venezuelans played Mexican film composer Silvestre Revueltas' La Noche de los Mayas (1939) -- an orchestral suite compiled from the film music for a film of the same name. The music is very much of the epic film sort -- more atmosphere than substance - but the orchestra did a great job of bringing out the dissonances and wild rhythms in the last movement, and the audience jumped to its feet with thunderous applause and calls of "bravo." Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell if they were screaming "bravo" or "Mambo" (a popular number from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story that the orchestra frequently plays in encores) -- at any rate, Dudamel relented after a while and played it for the third encore, after which the audience happily went home.
The second day (Dec. 11) started with contemporary Argentinean composer Esteban Benzecry's (b. 1970) Chaac (Maya Water God) from Rituales Amerindios (2008,) a work dedicated to Dudamel. This was not water in the impressionistic, scenic sense, but water as a life-giving miracle. The orchestra seemed to be teeming with life, like a thousand growing and multiplying plants and animal life.
After that, the orchestra was joined by the Westminster Symphonic Choir for Heitor Villa-Lobos's Chôros No. 10 (1926,) followed by Venezuelan Antonio Estévez's Cantata Criolla (1954) with tenor Idwer Álvarez and baritone Gaspar Colón. The latter is a dramatic work based on a Faust-inspired story of a "prairie man" challenged by the devil to a singing contest. Dudamel is nothing if not an architect of music; he seems able to take any score and present it, clarified and intensified. The economy of his conducting is almost beautiful -- not a single gesture, shrug or glance is meaningless -- and both orchestra and choir rose to the occasion, giving a lively, focused and robust performance.
Dudamel and the SBSOV are the ultimate dream come true story. From obscurity and poverty to stardom, through diligence and hard work -- that is just the kind of success story we love. In some ways, their success emulates that of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater 15 years ago. Unlike Venezuela, Russia does have a staunch tradition in classical music, but it was in shambles following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those who could leave left, and there was little hope amongst those who stayed. From the ashes rose one driven conductor with a vision, Gergiev, and he relentlessly raised the level of his orchestra and opera theater until it was one of the best. The Russians toured the world, performing before adulating audiences. Along the way, he also discovered numerous talented musicians (mostly opera singers) and introduced the West to innumerable works from the Russian repertoire that had almost never been known in the West and sometimes forgotten within Russia as well. The young people from Venezuela also promote works from South American composers that we would otherwise never have heard of, and they have their signature number encores that people go crazy about. Instead of the overture from Ruslan and Lyudmila and the Nutcracker and all that, they have Ginastera's Malambo from Estancia, Guitierrez's Alma Llanera, and, of course, Mambo.
While Dudamel is not the driving force behind El Sistema (he himself is a product of it, and El Sistema is a huge apparatus (teaching 400,000 children in Venezuela today; 75 percent from impoverished circumstances) with many regional nucleos (as their educational centers are called) he has now become one of the most sought-after conductors in the business now, and there is little, if anything, standing in his way. Perhaps the only thing that could defeat him now is his own schedule, and the limitations of having only 24 hours in a day and one body. Terrible limitations -- Gergiev has suffered from it mightily; after years of flying about conducting a matinee in one country and an evening performance in a different country, after years of being musical director of this orchestra and that orchestra and this festival and that festival, after taking on building not only a new concert hall in his home base of St. Petersburg but a new theater as well, audiences have tired of the conductor who often shows up late for a performance (especially in Russia) and hastily goes through an obviously under-rehearsed piece. Morale in the orchestra has dropped accordingly. It's easy to stay motivated when you are on your way up -- but once you've reached the top, it can be hard with audiences having high expectations and thinking that you will continue to surpass yourself.
The kids of the SBYOV are now professional musicians of the SBSOV and cultural ambassadors of Venezuela. Fortunately, the first priority of El Sistema is not success abroad but success at home; continuing to educate and inspire children and youths throughout Venezuela and South America. Other countries have started similar programs; there is a YOLA (Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles) in L.A. where Dudamel is the music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, there is an El Sistema Columbia and there are nucleos and similar initiatives in South Korea, Scotland, Mexico, South Africa and many other countries around the world. While I hope that Dudamel and the SBSOV will continue to fill us with hope and faith in a good world where hard work begets success, similar stories may spring from these El Sistema-inspired programs worldwide. Where will the next classical music sensation come from? To keep things interesting, I hope it will be another unexpected corner of the world.