WAVES of talent from Japan, Korea and China have brought new blood to classical music since the 1980s. A vigorous second wave arrived from Finland and other Scandinavian countries starting in the 1990s. Now, get set for a third wave, from an unexpected source -- Venezuela. It might turn out to be the biggest wave yet given its huge base: around 250,000 youngsters who have received free instruments and music lessons through a one-of-a-kind state-supported music education system.
The most visible surfer of the wave without a doubt is 25-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel, just a few years out of leading youth orchestras in provincial western Venezuela and a much-in-demand conductor in Europe and increasingly in the United States. And he’s not alone. Another graduate, double bassist Edicson Ruiz, became the youngest member to enter the Berlin Philharmonic, at 17.
Dudamel’s rise has been exponential. World-class conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen sing his praises. Deutsche Grammophon, the sine qua non of classical record labels, has signed him to an exclusive contract.
His resume is filling up as almost no 25-year-old before him: He is music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The L.A. Phil gave him his U.S. debut last summer at the Hollywood Bowl, an invitation extended after he won the Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, the previous year. In October, he conducted Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at opera’s holiest of shrines, La Scala in Milan, Italy. His 2007 calendar includes dates at the Salzburg Music Festival and with the New York Philharmonic, and he starts the new year with concerts this weekend leading the L.A. Phil in a program of Rachmaninoff, Kodaly and Bartok in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
All this attention might swell anyone’s head. But Dudamel still relates to the rather modest stirrings he felt as an 8-year-old.
“I had just gone to a concert with my parents and I identified with the conductor a lot,” Dudamel said in Spanish during a recent interview in Caracas. The ebullient, wide-eyed and wiry conductor took a brief break from rehearsals of his orchestra, to which he devotes four months a year.
“I thought, how interesting that the conductor uses an instrument that no one hears. I fell in love with it. I began to conduct in my house, arranging dolls as the orchestra. I’d put on a record and conduct, like theater.”
He was soon able to graduate to conducting real musicians, thanks to the music education system created in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan conductor, petroleum economics professor and former congressional deputy. Officially called the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, the program is more popularly known as El Sistema (the System).
Targeting mostly children living in slums, the System gives a musical instrument and instruction to any child in Venezuela who wants it. It began with 11 children and volunteers teaching out of a garage and has grown to nearly half a million children receiving free training at more than 120 centers around the country. By some estimates, the country has more than 200 youth and children’s orchestras.
Rattle, the conductor who brought Ruiz to the Berlin, has called it “the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world.”
The idea of the System is to transform the lives of many underprivileged and at-risk youths by providing an alternative to gang life and crime.
“Music changed my life,” Dudamel told the British Herald newspaper. “I can look back now and see that many of the boys from my class went on to become involved in drugs and crime. Those who played music did not.”
Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto, a city of about 1 million in western Venezuela. He says his talent has to do with his deeply musical family and a supportive environment. His father was a trombonist in the city’s orchestra, and his mother taught voice at the local music conservatory. He began violin lessons at the age of 4. (The System starts children as young as 2.)
Although Dudamel showed early promise as a violinist when he entered the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at 11, his teachers, including Jose Luis Jimenez saw that his true talent lay in conducting. After Jimenez formed a town chamber orchestra, he gave a 13-year-old Dudamel the chance to conduct a program of renaissance dances by Peter Warlock and Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
Ever since, Dudamel’s conducting path has seemed preordained. He was named director of the state youth orchestra at 15 and of the national youth orchestra at 17. He was encouraged each step of the way by leading Venezuelan conductors, including Abreu and Rodolfo Saglimbeni.
“When he [Dudamel] was still leading the state youth orchestra, maestro Abreu asked me to go there and give him some advice and I immediately knew I was in front of a special person with extraordinary capacities for music,” said Saglimbeni. “When he is in front of an orchestra, he has this electric personality.”
That electric quality struck Salonen and Ernest Fleischmann, two of the Bamberg jury members who awarded Dudamel the top prize at the Gustav Mahler competition.
“Conducting is a bit like mathematics,” Salonen, once a prodigy himself, said in a recent phone interview from London. “We are talking about a major natural talent. Sometimes people are born with a certain type of ability that is unique and which enables them to have a huge career early on.”
Fleischmann, the L.A. Phil’s retired executive director, said, “Of the hundreds and hundreds of conductors I’ve come across, only a few in their early 20s were of his caliber. Two others were Esa-Pekka and Simon Rattle, now music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.”
At the Bowl concert, the Philharmonic players reacted so enthusiastically to the young Venezuelan that they said, “Get him back. Quickly,” Fleischmann said.
“Two things grabbed me right away,” recalled Christopher Hanulik, one of the Philharmonic’s two principal basses. “First, he was obviously a very dynamic musical personality. The second thing was just the depth at his relatively young age that he was able to show to the orchestra. When a conductor can get up there without having to articulate verbally, from the musicians’ standpoint that’s so exciting.”
For all his natural talent, Dudamel needed the System to provide the opportunities to develop.
Abreu told Philharmonic Assn. President Deborah Borda that the System is “a social investment and not an artistic investment.” But its potential is incalculable.
“This is a very real thing,” said Borda, who spent five days in Caracas last month visiting the Simon Bolivar Conservatory and other nuclear schools such as La Riorinco Center, an old race track whose converted facilities offer 750 students a place to learn. The Philharmonic will sponsor a Los Angeles residency for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in the fall of 2007, she said. “Jose Antonio Abreu is like the Mother Teresa of music. The first day I was in tears. You eventually pull yourself together. This is the single most amazing musical-social program I’ve seen.”
Borda contrasted El Sistema with the splendid Finnish music education system that produced Salonen and other major conductors. “The essential difference is that Finland is an extremely modern Western country, with not a significant underclass,” she said. “Here, we’re talking about taking kids who are literally living on the street and changing their lives. In Finland, people are not worrying about where the next meal is coming from. In Venezuela, they are.”
But Abreu is interested in providing more than the next meal.
“The purpose of the System in its most profound sense is to introduce and promote through music a much higher and more noble human development of youth and childhood for middle- to low-income children,” said Abreu, who has shepherded the program through seven regime changes and has seen country after country adopt similar programs. “That doesn’t include only children of Venezuela, but all of Latin America, all of our continental neighbors.
“Gustavo is the highest and most sublime expression of what the System is. His musical and intellectual condition were acquired within the bosom of the System and within the country.”
In carrying the System’s ideals forward, Dudamel says conducting has become essential in his life, as basic as eating. “If I don’t conduct for a couple of weeks, I begin to feel different, and I become a different person,” he said.
Since the Bowl performance, Dudamel has led major European orchestras and opera companies including the Philharmonia of London, Dresden Staatskapelle and the Berlin State Orchestra in addition to La Scala. In September, he and his Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra released the first of four records, of Beethoven 5th and 7th symphonies, for DG. He’s also slated to guest conduct the New York Philharmonic next season. Amid all the attention, Dudamel’s name has been rumored to be on the New York Phil’s short list of successors to music director Lorin Maazel (the orchestra declines to comment on its search).
Asked where he lives when not in Venezuela, Dudamel said: “On a plane,” adding that after leading his band in concerts in Caracas, he was heading off with his wife, Eloisa, to Spain and Italy to look for an apartment, before turning toward Los Angeles. “But it’s nothing that I can’t handle. It’s not overwhelming me yet.”
Last April he accepted the post of principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden’s national orchestra. It was a tough decision: He was also approached for the same job at La Scala Philharmonic, the name the famed opera house orchestra uses for symphonic concerts. But those close to him counseled him to take the Swedish job because there would be less pressure and critical scrutiny as he built his repertory and gained experience.
“I think it’s better for him at this stage of his career to be a little out of the limelight and find out what it’s like to be responsible for an important professional orchestra, which is very different from the fabulous youth orchestra he now leads,” said one of his counselors, who asked not to be named.
Dudamel knows how much he still has to learn and said he soaks up as much advice as his maestros are willing to dispense. Barenboim, for example, helped him navigate technically treacherous parts of Bartok. Abbado, who was instrumental in Dudamel’s getting the La Scala gig, counseled a general attitude of humility.
Said Dudamel: “That’s important to hear from a great master who might have conducted a work like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony 70 or 80 times, that the more he knows a piece, the more he studies it. Because each time he studies it, the more details he finds. That to me shows real maturity.”
Kraul reported from Caracas and Pasles reported from Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall,
111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Saturday; shorter “Casual Friday” program at 8 p.m. Friday
Price: $15 to $135
Contact: (323) 850-2000