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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 NOVEMBER 2009 — "Stupendous! Best concert of the year!" Such was the verdict of an enthusiastic Parisian audience on the first appearance of the talented young Gustavo Dudamel at the Salle Pleyel on October 24th, where he conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, followed by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, before the two orchestras were united in a rendering of Berlioz' Symphonie fantastique which truly lived up to its name and had the normally sedate Parisian audience on its feet, waving flags and clapping and screaming for more!

The first part of the programme, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, inspired by the love of a Greek shepherd for the nymph, Chloé, captured by pirates but restored to him by Pan, was actually commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes. It is a vast musical fresco, one of the most beautiful scores in the history of French music, but written essentially for dance. Dudamel however, succeeded in telling the whole story musically, for not only did he seem to be playing each of the instruments himself, he communicated his own sensitivity and passion to each and every member of the orchestra, making the score unique in its own right and no longer subsidiary to dance. The interpretation was stunning.

Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez
(b. 1981, Barquisimeto, Venezuela

And yet more was to follow with the appearance of the young Venezuelan musicians on stage with a most exciting rendering of their native composer, Evencio Castellanos' Santa Cruz de Pacairigua. It demonstrated yet again the young conductor's ability to convey his exceptional enthusiasm to members of his orchestra, not one being more than 26 years of age.

With colourful changing rhythms, festive spirit, waltzes, ringing bells and a percussion solo of what could almost be called African music, dance again was at the heart of this intoxicating score, full of life, joy and energy. Composed in 1954, it was created as a tribute to Vincente Emilio Sojo, founder of the first Venezuelan orchestra in 1930.

And how aptly did Berlioz name his 1830 work, the Symphonie fantastique. Romantic, elaborate, melodious, exhilarating and electrifying by moments, the sound of the two orchestras together, with between 200 and 250 musicians on stage, was something that no one fortunate enough to be in the audience that night is likely to forget. Balls and waltzes again had their place in the complex work where life, death and grief were interspersed by moments of intense happiness. Dudamel, at only 28 years of age, is in the process of revolutionising classical music, his head of shiny black curls dancing along with the music of Ravel, Berlioz and Castellanos, the Latin American composer whose joyous symphony warmed the hearts of all present.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

The story of the Venezuelan orchestra began in 1975 when the politician and composer, José Antonio Abreu, a man of great charm and generosity, gathered together a dozen or so pupils to play music in a garage. The following day there were 25, the next, 46, and so on.

His dream became to create a system of musical education throughout Venezuela available to all children, not only those of privileged families. In a country ravaged by poverty, drugs and gang warfare, El Sistema (a programme financed by the state) thus came into being, its task that of combating the feelings of failure and frustration rife in the poorer quarters.

From the age of three and sometimes even before, children from every level of society are given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument with qualified teachers, the emphasis being put on sensitivity and awareness of the beauty within the music. An instrument is put into their hands and instead of wandering the streets after school, the children, strongly supported by their families, learn how to live alongside each other. They learn a certain discipline and their part of responsibility within the micro-society created by the orchestra. Within 4 years, a child of 8 who knew nothing of music is typically able to play a piece by Tchaikovsky.

But they are not told that if they work, they will become musicians; they are told that they are musicians and as often as is possible, children throughout the country join orchestras and are given the opportunity to play in public. They are encouraged each step of the way. Six days a week, four hours a day. Every three months, the country's finest orchestras organise auditions for some 300,000 applicants, every child's dream being to integrate the Simon Bolivar orchestra as did Gustavo Dudamel, whose own studies as a conductor, following his years of playing the violin, began at 15.

But while the objective was primarily to save the children and give some sense to their lives, over 30 professional orchestras have now sprung up in the country producing more and more international soloists. Their progress has been phenomenal, as are the concerts they give where their love of music and of what they are doing is paramount.

"An orchestra," said Abreu, present at the concert in Paris, "is happiness, commitment, team-work, plus a desire to succeed," an explosion of joy illustrating his words as the two orchestras broke out into a succession of Latin American tunes as their encore, musicians, instruments and audience dancing around in a wild farandole!


After the concert on the 24th, Dudamel and Abreu were admitted into France's prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of their significant contributions to the arts. Gustavo Dudamel was made Chevalier (knight) of the Order, an award he accepted in the name of his 'muchachos,' the remarkable young musicians of his Venezuelan orchestra, while his teacher and mentor, José Antonio Abreu, deeply moved, was made Officier of the Order for his extraordinary achievement in creating the pioneering "Sistema" of musical education.

From September this year, Dudamel will also be conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Latest recordings of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, under the label of Deutsche Grammophon, include the DVD "Live in Salzburg", a documentary DVD "The Vision of Music," a recording of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven's Symphonies N° 5 and 7 (which won the Prix Echo 2007 of the Nouvel artiste de l'année), followed by Mahler's 5th Symphony, and in 2008, "Fiesta," which includes Latin -American melodies and "Mambo" by Bernstein.

Patricia Boccadoro is a culture critic and senior editor at Culturekiosque.com.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

El Sistema Founder Jose Antonio Abreu Wins Glenn Gould Prize

Gabriela Montero: From Grammy Nominations to Presidential Inauguration

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