People who love the arts are fond of saying that art changes our lives. But I visited an extraordinary music program for young people, in Venezuela, which takes this axiom more literally than it’s usually meant. Given UNESCO standards, 80% of the people in Venezuela live below the poverty line. 30 years ago, a 36-year-old composer/organist named José Antonio Abreu wanted to do something about this appalling statistic, and what he accomplished is now being widely imitated throughout Latin America. Young people at the earliest ages—as early as two or three—begin state-supported music training. When they’re old enough, they’re provided with musical instruments and, now, cell phones (because there are no phone lines in the barrios). They take lessons and rehearse every day of the week, after school and all day on Sundays. They get to play in their local orchestras and bands, and the best of them go into the national orchestras.
There are numerous individual success stories. I heard a local youth orchestra in Puerto la Cruz play a scintillating, evocative, skillfully orchestrated piece called Canaima, which was composed by its own conductor, Yuri Hune—a shimmering evocation of Angel Falls that ought to be taken up by the Pops as an alternative to Copland or Gould’s Latin American imitations. A young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, graduated from this program, and he’s now not only music director of the top Venezuelan youth orchestra but also an internationally celebrated guest conductor with an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon (he made a brilliant BSO debut at Tanglewood this summer, conducting Beethoven, Bernstein, and de Falla). Edison Ruiz, a young double bass player, so impressed a bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic that he brought the young Venezuelan to the Berlin Conservatory as his student. Last year, Ruiz, at 19, beat out 95 other auditioning bassists to become the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic, probably the world’s most prestigious symphonic ensemble.
Two years ago, Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Phil’s music director, came to Caracas and led a thrilling performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony (I saw a tape of it, and the power and insinuating rhythmical subtlety of the playing is astonishing).
Rattle said: “I don’t think there’s anything more important going on in music in the world right now than what is happening in Venezuela.... The rest of the world has so much to learn. And we’re all going to go back to Europe and America and bore them endlessly about what’s going on here. Because I think this is the future of music.” Later this year, the Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezuelana Simón Bolívar will participate in a European tour under Claudio Abbado. In 2007, under Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra will join Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.