By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
He came to international attention after he won the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, in 2004. Former L.A. Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and Ernest Fleischmann, the orchestra’s retired executive director, were among the competition’s jurors. Salonen, who inaugurated his own successful, innovative programs and festivals, and the Philharmonic gave Dudamel his U.S. conducting debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 2005.
Then the Phil chose him in 2007 as its next music director. At the time, the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic were rumored to be actively pursuing him. His contract with the Phil runs for five years. (He also is principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden.)
Still, good genes don’t tell the whole story.
Maybe it was one of those inexplicable gifts from the gods?
Dudamel himself leaves no room for doubt. He says it was the training he got in the extraordinary Venezuela Youth Orchestra system.
“The orchestra system project gives results,” he says. “I see it, I have lived it, I am a product of this system.”
He is speaking of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, more popularly known as El Sistema, or the System. Dudamel speaks about it in Alberto Arvelo’s 2005 documentary, Tocar Y Luchar (To Play and to Fight), which chronicles the story of the System and its impact on people’s lives.
The System was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan conductor, organist, petroleum-economics professor and former congressional deputy. Given the outcome of the idea, he should also be called a visionary genius.
Abreu started with 11 children and a handful of volunteers in a garage. At the time, there were only two professional orchestras in the country, made up mostly of European-trained musicians.
Since then, more than 400,000 young people have gone through the System’s training. Estimates now suggest that the country has 125 youth orchestras and 30 professional orchestras, and the idea has been transplanted to other countries in South America, and to the U.K.
Abreu managed to get the System funded through seven successive changes of government, essentially by promoting it as a social program for disadvantaged kids. In fact, 90 percent of El Sistema’s kids are from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And in a country where the average yearly income is less than $3,500, being poor means being poor indeed. The government gives the System an annual budget of about $30 million.
But when Abreu talks about “socialization,” he has a very exalted concept in mind.
“Music has to be recognized as an element of socialization,” he says in Arvelo’s documentary, “as an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest social values, such as solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion, and it has the ability to unite an entire community and express sublime feelings.”
An orchestra, for Abreu, is no less than an engine of spiritual evolution. It is a group, he says, in which “everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself,” and whose sole aim is “to create beauty.”
In other words, Abreu’s aim wasn’t to offer a few more concerts in a few more concert halls. He wanted his orchestra to do nothing less than “transform the public.”
And he wanted that transformation to embrace millions.
“Originally, art was by the minority for the minority,” he says. “Then it became art by the minority for the majority. We are beginning a new era where art is an enterprise by the majority for the majority.”
It is that kind of ideal that the Philharmonic is pursuing in its fledgling youth-orchestra project. But where is El Sistema’s kind of support going to come from? Not from the federal or state governments, which are facing their own budget crises. At least not now. Maybe in time. ...
So far, there is only one YOLA EXPO Center Youth Orchestra. But there are enough musicians to start a second one in mid-October, and Philharmonic President Deborah Borda says that a third will be launched at another location next fall.
Eight years earlier, Ruiz had been working as a supermarket packer in a rough Caracas neighborhood to help support his mother.
Another graduate, Lennar Acosta, represents yet another life turned around. Now a clarinetist in the Caracas Youth Orchestra and a tutor at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory, Acosta had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offenses before the System offered him a clarinet.
“At first, I thought they were joking,” he told writer Shirley Aphorp. “I thought nobody would trust a kid like me not to steal an instrument like that. But then I realized that they were not lending it to me. They were giving it to me. And it felt much better in my hands than a gun.”