The hottest and brightest

Rescued by music
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  December 16, 2008

The New England Conservatory, in an unprecedented event co-sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Celebrity Series of Boston, is bringing to Symphony Hall, on November 7, the hottest of young conductors — 26-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, who is about to take over no less an orchestra than the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

But that night, he’ll be leading a different  orchestra — one that some of the most distinguished musicians in the world regard as the brightest light in the window of classical music: the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Dudamel himself is the leading graduate of Venezuela’s remarkable music-education program, another of whose alums, a bass player, was invited at the age of 19 to join the Berlin Philharmonic.

NEC’s Mark Churchill has supplied the institutional glue to cement a close relationship between the conservatory and that miraculous program. Today some half million Venezuelan kids, from age three to 19, living below the poverty line, some of them even hearing impaired or severely handicapped, are — instead of joining gangs and dealing drugs — taking music lessons and playing in and conducting classical orchestras. They’re also learning to teach music, make instruments, and run music programs. Lives are being changed — and saved.

The Bolívar Orchestra is the top of the line, and such conductors as Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado have come to Venezuela specifically to work with these splendid young musicians. The orchestra’s first release on the Deutsche Grammophon label, Beethoven’s Fifth and Seventh symphonies under Dudamel, has won rave reviews from the international press.

The Symphony Hall program includes Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and a selection of South American works.

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