Simon says it is the most important thing happening in classical music in the world. "Simon" is Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic. "It" is El Sistema, the youth orchestra program in Venezuela.
"It" might also describe the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the cream of a 250,000-student crop, which began its first U.S. tour at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night under its music director, Gustavo Dudamel. And if this incredible orchestra hits San Francisco, Boston and New York with the same revelatory effect as at the first Disney concert, our country, with its poor music education, may never -- should never -- be the same.
Happily, the orchestra and Dudamel, who will become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, are hot properties. TV's "60 Minutes," which gave El Sistema its first big blast of publicity eight years ago, was on hand in L.A. to film a follow-up story on Dudamel, who at 26 is a spectacularly rising star worldwide. The Philharmonic has been under an international barrage of interview requests ever since its Easter surprise announcement of Dudamel's appointment.
Both Thursday's concert and another on Friday night had sold out quickly, and Internet ticket scalping had reached near Ian McKellen-like proportions. When an orchestra of 160 slowly filed onto the Disney stage Thursday, the applause grew and grew. When Dudamel walked out, he might have been a rock star. When the concert ended, he might have hit a home run to win the World Series.
The program -- Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" and Mahler's mighty, 70-minute Fifth Symphony -- wasn't slight. Dudamel has ideas about these pieces, and they are mostly about how to make every incident in the scores either heart-stoppingly thrilling or heart-meltingly tender, how to shape a melodic line in the most comely fashion and how to coax a rhythmic phrase into dancing its way to every corner of a concert hall.
The stage was crammed full of youngsters, ages 12 to 26. Individually these are first-rate players (the horns alone would be the envy of many a brand-name band). But they also form an organism like no other. In furious passages, masses of string players swayed in their seats and wind players bobbed their heads as if guided by a single animating life force.
"West Side Story" is a story that resonates with these young Venezuelans. Many come from poverty, and all know about gangs on the streets of their capital, Caracas. Dudamel's accents were like startling gunshots; the brutality of the "Rumble" felt all too immediate; "Somewhere" was almost unbearably melancholic; and "Mambo" was a mambo, a real one.
The concert was delayed after intermission to allow Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded El Sistema 30 years ago, to get to the hall (his plane landed at 7:30). His devotees describe him as a saintly snake charmer who has managed to get the program funded through 10 administrations, with Venezuela's current leader, Hugo Chavez, the latest eager supporter.
Mahler's Fifth was then played as life-and-death music, which is how Mahler intended the symphony, what with its angry funeral opening, its waltz-goes-mad Scherzo, love letter Adagietto and neurotic high spirits Finale.
Dudamel's Mahler is not neurotic. But it is violent, and it is exalted, and it is, at many moments, exquisitely beautiful. The power and ferocity in the first two movements astonished, given that this was an ensemble at least 50% larger than the normal Mahler orchestra. But also, given how expressive and clear the inner lines sounded, a law or two of physics must have been overcome.
Dudamel has this symphony in his blood -- he conducted without a score. Still, no 26-year-old can be expected to get it all. The Scherzo, so exciting moment to moment, didn't entirely hold together. The slow movement didn't feel too slow, as it does on his new recording, but the last movement did slightly. Then again, neither Leonard Bernstein nor Michael Tilson Thomas truly mastered this symphony until they were more than twice Dudamel's age.
No matter, the performance caught Mahler's spirit, and it caught the spirit of a generation of young people who have what it takes to make the world better.
Politically, we bicker with Chavez's Venezuela. A little rehearsal time in L.A. was lost because the visiting orchestra's instruments were held up by U.S. Customs, which wanted to go through them with a fine-tooth comb.
But musically, Venezuela leaves no child behind, and the results are an inspiration to us all.