Tuesday, April 7, 2009

El Sistema!

Last night was an absolutely astonishing concert by Gustav Dudarmel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar) in the Concert Hall of Washington's Kennedy Center. But tonight I have the opportunity to meet maestro José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema and the man ultimately reponsible for the concert, the orchestra and its conductor, and I should like to meet him before I complete my review of the event. In the meantime, here is an updated version of an earlier post:

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I have just learned that I will be able to attend a concert next year of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra here in Washington, led by the dynamic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

This extraoridinary young man (and the equally extraordinary ensemble) had first come to my attention when, earlier in the year, CBS' 60 Minutes aired a feature on the Venezuelan musical phenomenon, called El Sistema (The System), in which over a hundred young people's ensembles have been developed in the Latin American country, not only to nurture young musicians, but also to give youngsters from economically depressed and crime-ridden neighborhoods a chance to find self-esteem and confidence, and a future through music.

The concept was developed by José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician who had studied piano, harpsichord, and organ to supplement his academic work at institutions which included the University of Michigan. In his description of the effects of the program, "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that comes from music."

Children as young as two years are initiated into the program, learning the basics of music. Thousands of trained musicians participate in teaching their young students, who, as stated on El Sistema's Website, number 350,000 in 180 ensembles throughout the country. During the past 32 years, according to Dr. Abreu, some 800,000 children have participated in El Sistema. In the words of one instructor interviewed for the CBS program, "when they sit in one of these churches in the orchestra, they think they are in another country, on another planet, and they start changing."

El Sistema has attracted widespread media attention (listen to a BBC/WGBH program) and has been featured in a 2006 film documentary, Tocar y Luchar (To Play and To Fight), which has won a number of awards in international film festivals.

Performances of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra, the program's flagship ensemble, have astonished audiences all over the world, under the leadership of conductor Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema, and a prodigy who was recently appointed Musical Director of the prestigious Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, as illustrated in yet another episode of 60 minutes; see also a video portrait of the conductor by the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon, which has released three CDs by the SBNYO.

I look forward to blogging on the concert, which will include a performance of Igor Stravinsky's revolutionary The Rite of Spring--which was probably the most influential piece of classical music to which I was exposed in my childhood. But more on that personal note later. . . .

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