Caracas diary: Dudamel, Abreu and a multitude of young musicians
This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.
Not even a parent is likely to relish the thought of a musical showcase with 1,700 schoolchildren performing. So it was probably smart of El Sistema not to tell the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its entourage Thursday afternoon what to expect for an event at and around the Teatro Teresa Carreno, the main concert hall in Caracas where the orchestra currently is finishing up its Mahler Project. The hosts for the showcase were a beaming Gustavo Dudamel and a beaming José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema.
The kids came from the núcleo schools around the country that are the heart of El Sistema. Several news crews were on hand, and though the event was closed to the public, hundreds could look on from outside terraces. Dudamel was shadowed by formidable security bruisers.
The Venezuelans do know how to put on a show. At various points around the courtyard of the concert hall -- which faces a lush park and botanical garden where, like nearly everywhere else in this intriguing but frustratingly inaccessible city, it is not safe to wander alone -- we were shown one mind-boggling ensemble after another.
A 279-member “infant” orchestra –- the tiny principal cellist in one was not as tall as her instrument –- played the “Hallelujah” Chorus from memory. At another station, 350 children tackled Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav from memory. At another, a colossal kiddy orchestra of 639 gave a colossal reading of a bit of Handel’s “Water Music” from memory. In the small chamber music venue of the Carreno’s two halls, 310 children crammed every inch of the stage for a deafening if hair-raising performance of the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. From memory. I didn’t see a sheet of music all afternoon. The event ended with a showcase of El Sistema’s program for children with special needs. A vocal quintet and a larger chorus of 150 proud and accomplished youngsters with hearing and sight impairments, Down syndrome and other afflictions brought tears to many eyes.
All the children wore ribbons around their necks with the yellow, blue, red bands of the Venezuelan flag. Abreu was treated throughout with genuflecting reverence. Dudamel was mobbed by the special needs kids, and he joyfully hugged all of them.
What to make of this? The level of achievement by these núcleo students, the vast majority of whom are from economically underprivileged families, is hard to grasp. There are so many of them. They are such good musicians. They play with absorption, extraordinary vitality and positively unbelievable unanimity and uniformity. They are very, very loud, and they are very, very proud. They are arrestingly patriotic and the nationalist fervor can give pause. These 1,700 children were clearly skimmed from the top, but they represent merely a tiny fraction of the nearly 400,000 children currently studying music at núcleos throughout Venezuela.
Afterward three American reporters were given individual 10-minute audiences with Abreu in an empty office under the concert hall. He is a warm, attentive, evangelical man who answered each question with long and inspirational remarks. I wanted to know what is behind this fanaticism in El Sistema for size.
Abreu said it is very simple. “Everyone must be able to participate.”
For him, music isn’t a matter of talent, although El Sistema happens to have created the world’s most efficient system for discovering and developing talent -- Dudamel being the most obvious example of that. But for Abreu, music is a matter of social need.
Abreu pointed out that big orchestras are revolutionary. If you read Mozart’s letters, he said, you find that Mozart loved the idea of huge orchestras, even if he rarely had access to them. The same was true for many Baroque composers, Abreu noted.
But the fact is, Abreu’s concept is very much a revolutionary one. What really lies behind it, he also said, is his fundamental belief that “music is not for minorities, and this is our struggle.’
There is a pragmatic side to this. When Abreu began El Sistema 37 years ago with 11 musicians, he was already a practiced politician who had studied economics as well as music and had worked in government. From the start, he said, he realized that it would be impossible to pretend that the state would support his vision for a vast nationwide musical education system if it were in any way exclusive.
But there is something personal as well in Abreu’s advocacy for musical magnitude. As a musician himself who studied violin, conducting and composition, “I never wanted to be a soloist,” he admitted. “I didn’t want to isolate myself. I wanted a world model.”
What this ultimately has produced is a musical mass culture in both senses of the word, and one that is meant to help integrate people in a multicultural country. The special needs program is a further example of that. One núcleo orchestra, for instance, now has a blind trumpet player. The hope is this will help prepare him to function productively in society when he grows up.
There is something else. Abreu simply seems to like large-scale music making. “We are not afraid of it,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
As Dudamel, who grew up playing in these kinds of orchestras, was walking out of a thrillingly deafening Tchaikovsky performance, I went up to him and said “I think I now see why you are doing Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ on Saturday with a record 1,400 performers.”
“Yes,” he replied laughing, “for us it’s natural.”
-- Mark Swed in Caracas, Venezuela
Photos, from top: Security surrounds Gustavo Dudamel at the Teatro Teresa Carreno; Dudamel with special needs music students (José Antonio Abreu is in the foreground); news crews covering the showcase; a núcleo orchestra. Credit: Mark Swed/Los Angeles Times.