Changing lives

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 15, 2006

Physical well-being is also part of the big picture. “Through music therapy,”  Abreu tells me, “physically and mentally incapacitated children have made notable recoveries. The minister of Health and Social Development knows this: music has become part of environmental health in Venezuela. Soon the other arts will become part of the system too—children’s theater, poetry, ballet. Our dream is to integrate the arts. If you don’t combat the pathologies through prevention they become irreversible.”

30 years ago, Abreu reports, there were two orchestras in Venezuela. The players were 90% foreign. And they reached the same audience. Today the orchestra is almost 100% Venezuelan—and mostly a product of the youth orchestra program. And the boundaries between classical, folk, and popular music are breaking down. The students play all kinds of music—even learn to improvise.

When I asked about talent, Abreu said that a musical impulse and respect for music is inherent in the Latin American psyche. The harder question to answer, despite the idealistic vision of music educators like Mark Churchill, is whether a program like this can translate to young people in the United States, where there is little inherent respect for cultural traditions on any economic level and already skimpy arts programs are being cut to ribbons. Maybe if more American students came into contact with the passion of the Venezuelans; maybe if arts programs got serious government support...

Abreu says the New England Conservatory is “the first world-class  conservatory to show interest in this program.” NEC’s Mark Churchill compares the program to Boston’s Project STEP (String Training and Educational Program for Students of Color), an attempt to help diversify the largely white, middle personnel of most symphony orchestras. His goal is to build centers for music in the poorest sections of Boston, and to send young American students to study in Venezuela.

Simon Rattle said that these young, deprived Venezuelan musicians have “everything to teach us in Germany about how to play Beethoven,” about how to make classical music totally engaging. Classical music, he fears, is dying in Germany—the state has given up its support). But the Venezuelans, as Abreu says, “play with every ounce of their being, as if their lives depended on it—and they do!”

After hearing the extraordinary Mahler performance under Rattle, it’s something of a surprise to discover some limitations of the young Venezuelan orchestras. At the Montalban Center, there’s a joint rehearsal of the American and Venezuelan youth orchestras—some 300 players squeezed into that gymnasium-sized room. In Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, Zander has no trouble getting the ensemble to play together and to play with passion and enthusiasm.

But it’s harder getting them to connect the notes to what the music means. “We’re not interested in your pianissimo,” he tells the players, “but in Tchaikovsky’s pianissimo.” To some of the players, he points out that “You can’t make love with your legs crossed.” “So SAD-ly,” he explains to the violins playing pizzicato, giving them the vocal inflection he wants in the musical phrase, “Not `sad-LEE.’“

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