Changing lives

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 15, 2006

Yet in some ways, playing music is not the main goal. The State Foundation for the Venezuelan National Children and Youth Orchestra and Choir System (FESNOJIV) is primarily a social program, designed to keep low-income young Venezuelans off some of the world’s meanest streets, where drug dealing (and drug taking) and prostitution begin at early ages. This program literally saves lives. Learning music also teaches the students cooperation, teamwork, self-respect, and respect for culture. They’re given hope. And pride. Nearly a quarter of a million students are now participating in this program—110 youth orchestras and 60 children’s orchestras, including pre-school orchestras, in 160 centers across the country. One of the largest, the Montalbán Center in Caracas, has 2000 students. Visiting that center, I heard two groups of children between the ages of two and six do complicated rhythmic clapping and sweet birdlike singing, and a pre-teen orchestra in a scratchy but remarkably lively, rhythmically incisive performance of music from Carmen. And they seemed to be loving what they were doing.

There are also six centers for handicapped children—students who are blind, deaf, and mute, or suffering from autism, Down syndrome, and mental retardation. In a year there will be 21.

And because the program is burgeoning, it’s also creating jobs for musicians, music teachers, administrators, and instrument makers (there’s currently one center for producing instruments), many of whom will earn undreamed of middle-class salaries. Not that most of them are getting rich, but suddenly they have the possibility of transcending the poverty line. It’s a kind of miracle. In 2000, Maestro Abreu was awarded one of the four annual Right Livelihood Awards in Stockholm (www.Rightlivelihood.Org), the “alternative Nobel Prize,” for his dedication to making a better world.

I first learned about this phenomenon from cellist and conductor Mark Churchill, dean of the New England Conservatory Preparatory School, who invited me to come on NEC’s biannual Youth Philharmonic Orchestra tour to Latin America—a week in Caracas and a week of traveling in Brazil. For Churchill, a high point of the tour would be the public signing of a “friendship agreement,” fostering an exchange program between “the preliminarily named” Inter-American Center for Social Action Through Music, an outgrowth of FESNOJIV, and NEC. A new building for the center in Caracas will have an entire floor for visiting NEC faculty and students, and NEC is making a commitment to bring Venezuelan musicians to Boston. Conductor and YPO music director Benjamin Zander will be returning to Caracas, following in the footsteps of such classical music luminaries as Rattle and Claudio Abbado, to conduct the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, the top Venezuelan student ensemble, in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

The Venezuelan youth orchestras make quite a contrast with the YPO, an orchestra of some 130 extremely gifted young musicians between the ages of 13 and 18, most of them from affluent families. They play superb instruments, each of which is probably worth more than all the instruments of an entire Venezuelan orchestra put together. They will go on to college, many of them to major conservatories. They’re nice kids and very smart—it was a pleasure traveling with them. They’re used to comfort yet most of them were graciously forgiving of the grueling tour schedule (including two 12-hour bus trips because a bridge on the one direct road to one of the tour cities in Venezuela got washed away in a downpour and they had to take the long way around).

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