Changing lives

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 15, 2006

The YPO’s significant strides are not, however, news. What is news, though, was the astonishing concert the Caracas Children’s Orchestra gave at the Montalbán center in honor of the YPO on its first visit there—the Venezuelans applauding the YPO players and chaperones as they came into the gym-size rehearsal hall and took their bleacher seats. The demanding program included a complete Beethoven Fifth Symphony, led by music director Ulyses Ascanio and played with great vigor and musicality and astonishing precision, featuring a remarkable simultaneity of bowing.

These youngsters also played the beautiful Venezuelan national anthem and an unusually heartfelt “Star-Spangled Banner,” with a long-held high note on the climactic “land of the freeeeee” that sent shivers up my spine.

For an encore, we got the galloping finale of Rossini’s WilliamTellOverture, at which point Ascanio put down his baton and stepped away from the podium, leaving the orchestra to play on its own. Then the violins stood! They were actually playing from memory. Yet their enthusiasm—and phenomenal precision—remained undiminished. Everything these once-thought-futureless children played was about freedom and hope and rescue.

Afterwards, there was a love-in, a joyful bonding session between the two student orchestras. The YPO gave the Venezuelans T-shirts. The Venezuelan kids draped their sashes—red, yellow, and blue with an arc of stars (the colors of the Venezuelan flag), from which dangle a little medallion with the orchestra-program’s motto, “Jugar e Trocar” (“To Play and to Fight”)—around the necks of the Norte-Americanos. They gave their beautiful new jackets—red, yellow, and blue (with stars)—to the YPO players. Outside, the two groups merged for food, dancing, and games. I wasn’t the only person choking up and brushing away tears.

I met for an hour with Maestro Abreu. He’s a wizened, gnome-like 66-year-old, and looks ten years older. [Photo available] He speaks English but used an animatedly expressive interpreter. In his 30 years, he’s been perched on a political tightrope. Venezuela’s current anti-American, pro-Castro President Chavez surely couldn’t be all that pleased about a pedagogical merger between the Venezuelans and an American music school. Yet the funding is still in place.

“Each orchestra,” Abreu says, “is a school of social values, a small society, a community.” He sees the music program as an equivalent to sports activities. “Sports play an indispensable role in the physical well-being of the students; music offers a world of feelings, sensitivities, values. The orchestra has an ethical content. The child at home feels abandoned—in the orchestra, each child has a second home, with spiritual brothers and sisters. There’s a team spirit, solidarity, mutual dependency, and friendship—a sense of belonging. And the child in the orchestra becomes a model at home.”

“Even the parents,” Abreu continues, “are transformed by the public appearances of their children. Each orchestra represents its own barrio, and competes with other barrios. It’s proven by statistical studies: the music program creates a better social environment in the community. It’s a tool for drug prevention, a good as opposed to a bad use of free time. It prevents alcoholism and child pornography. Economic theory describes a vicious circle of poverty: you’re poor because you’re poor. This new system has begun to break that vicious cycle. Poor children become rich spiritually, begin to aspire beyond their social ambiance. They have an interior thrust—the thrill of art. And social recognition gives them dignity.” An award the Venezuelan program received from UNESCO stated that if you first create “an affluence of the spirit, everything else follows.”

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