[Marxism] Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel: Conductor of the People

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 29 03:51:28 MDT 2007

it's about time we had a philharmonic conductor who grew up listening
to salsa.

there are a number of videos on youtube of gustavo dudamel conducting
the orquesta sinfónica simón bolívar. part of the pleasure, not
surprisingly, is the musicians.

seeing him conduct makes me want to write for orchestra. the one
place i've previously felt this impulse is in cuba, where we are
presently forbidden to travel.

dudamel is not a solitary genius. he's the product of a vast musical
culture. there is a quick reference in this article to
"underperformed" latin american composers. only three are named, but
it could be a very long list.

October 28, 2007
Conductor of the People



In 2004, Gustavo Dudamel, who was then virtually unknown outside his
native Venezuela, entered the first Gustav Mahler International
Conducting Competition, for conductors under 35. One of the jurors in
Bamberg, Germany, was Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los
Angeles Philharmonic. “I arrived a bit later than the rest of the
jury, and by the semifinals, there was already a lot of buzz about
him,” Salonen said. At 23, Dudamel was not only an unusually young
contestant; this session with the Bamberg Symphony marked his first
time conducting a professional orchestra. He seemed unfazed. “You are
young and inexperienced, but you should somehow create an aura of
confidence and authority,” Salonen explained to me recently. “Gustavo
is not concerned about authority. He is concerned about music, which
is exactly the right approach. The orchestra gets seduced into
playing well for him, rather than forced.” After the prize was
awarded to Dudamel, Salonen telephoned Deborah Borda, president of
the L.A. Philharmonic. “He says, ‘Deborah, you won’t believe this kid
from Venezuela who won the competition,’ ” Borda recounted to me. “I
said, ‘What’s he like?’ He said: ‘He’s a conducting animal. Let’s get
him in for a bowl concert right away. ”

Dudamel didn’t even have a manager. First he found one, then Borda
booked him for a philharmonic outdoor summer concert in the Hollywood
Bowl. “When he came, we were getting toward the end of the bowl
season, it’s 110 degrees, the orchestra was getting ready for
vacation — and it was electric,” Borda recalled. She immediately
signed him up for a regular subscription date in Disney Hall and, in
the meantime, embarked on what she calls “a two-year odyssey” to
watch him work with orchestras throughout Europe. For Borda, who was
scouting candidates to succeed Salonen someday, the turning point
arrived while she was watching Dudamel rehearse the La Scala
orchestra in Milan in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (as it happens, the
piece he performed in the Bamberg competition). “That is a great
opera orchestra, but you don’t think of them as a great Mahler band,”
Borda says of La Scala. “When they started playing, it sounded like
Verdi. By the end, it sounded like Vienna, with the klezmer, Jewish,
real Mahlerian weighty sound. This was heavy lifting, a real crucible
for a young conductor.” The only remaining question in her mind was
to see how he fared at Disney Hall in his debut there last January.
After a rapturous response from the players and audience members, she
offered Dudamel a five-year contract as music director, starting in
the 2009-10 season.

There was a sense that she had snaffled the Man o’ War or Secretariat
of the classical-music racetrack. Dudamel, now 26, is the
most-talked-about young musician in the world. Sir Simon Rattle, the
principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called him “the
most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” At a
time when recording companies are cutting back on orchestral
releases, Dudamel has received a coveted contract with Deutsche
Grammophon and has released two CDs of Beethoven and Mahler
symphonies. Already a frequent presence in European halls, he will
begin his most extended appearance in the United States next month,
performing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston — and, for the first
time, in New York, with the New York Philharmonic and, at Carnegie
Hall, with his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

Is there a risk in committing an orchestra to a leader who is still
relatively unproved? At this stage of his career, Dudamel has a
limited repertory, focused on the familiar Central Europeans
(Beethoven, Mahler) and the underperformed Latin Americans (Arturo
Márquez, José Pablo Moncayo, Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez). Also untested
is his capacity for the administrative and public relations tasks
that American orchestras require of their music directors. But the
L.A. Philharmonic has a history of hiring dynamic young music
directors (Salonen was 34 when he began there, and Zubin Mehta was
only 26), so you could say that taking risks is part of its
tradition. A Latin American conductor in Los Angeles County, where
roughly half the population is Hispanic, also makes sense. “It’s
exciting for people here,” Borda says.

In selecting Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic is also allying itself
with a uniquely successful education initiative, of which its new
music director is the most illustrious product; this week the
philharmonic will announce plans to inaugurate a program, “Youth
Orchestra L.A.,” that is directly modeled on a Venezuelan prototype.
Youth Orchestra L.A. will begin with youngsters between the ages of 8
and 12 in a disadvantaged district in central Los Angeles, but its
ultimate goal is much grander: to provide a musical instrument and a
place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles
County who wants one. Borda says that she was inspired by her visit
late last year to Caracas. In vivid contrast to the situation in the
United States, where arts-education programs have been snipped from
school curricula as unaffordable frippery, the Venezuelan system
provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or
troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country. And the results
have been astonishing. I asked Borda if she was surprised by anything
she had seen during her Venezuelan visit. “I didn’t imagine I would
be in tears as much as I was,” she told me.

A decade ago, in a gymnasium in Barquisimeto in western Venezuela,
Dudamel, then 17, stood on a podium with a baton in his hand, facing
an orchestra and chorus of about 800. Conducting a musical ensemble
of that size is like commanding a regiment. For the teenage novice,
the challenge was heightened by the conspicuous and audible presence
of his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, who was seated front-row center
and calling out suggestions. “Woodwinds up!” Abreu urged his protégé.
“Tell the strings more bow!” The conductor sailed ahead confidently.
“I think that was the test,” Dudamel told me. If his unflappability
was the quality being sized up, the young man triumphed. His musical
instincts were equally impressive. On the five-hour car trip back to
Caracas, Abreu telephoned home to tell his sister, “I think we have
found the new conductor for the Children’s Orchestra.”

Dudamel’s rocket-fast rise can’t be grasped without an understanding
of the music-education system that launched him. With an enrollment
of 250,000 students, most of them from humble backgrounds, the
National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela —
known popularly as el sistema — is the lifetime work of the visionary
and tireless Abreu, who in 32 years has navigated the program through
10 different administrations of this politically turbulent country,
flourishing under the conservative presidents of the 80s and the
defiantly leftist Hugo Chávez today. Combining political shrewdness
with religious devotion, the stooped, ascetic Abreu, who is 68, seems
to have stepped out of a novel by Stendhal or Greene (if you overlook
the ever-present cellphone). His friends invariably compare him to a
priest. Unencumbered by family obligations or material possessions,
he has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra
represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in
that environment, the better for all. Sometimes Abreu emphasizes the
spiritual enrichment that music brings to the individual; at other
times, he points to evidence that students who go through the sistema
become more productive and responsible members of society.

The most remarkable feature of the Venezuelan music-education system
is its instant immersion: the children begin playing in ensembles
from the moment they pick up their instruments. Their instructors say
the students are learning to behave as much as they are discovering
how to make music. “In an orchestra, everybody respects meritocracy,
everybody respects tempo, everybody knows he has to support everyone
else, whether he is a soloist or not,” explains Igor Lanz, the
executive director of the private foundation that administers the
government-financed sistema. “They learn that the most important
thing is to work together in one common aim.” Across Venezuela the
sistema has established 246 centers, known as nucleos, which admit
children between 2 and 18, assign them instruments and organize them
into groups with instructors. Typically practicing for two or three
hours every day, the children are performing recognizable music
virtually from the outset.

Not long ago I visited a few nucleos, including one in a
concrete-block building in the Los Chorros district of Caracas that
was constructed in the mid-60s as a detention center for juvenile
delinquents. It now houses youngsters who have been taken from the
streets or from violent or crime-ridden homes into the protective
custody of the state. Only 57 kids were residents of the shelter, but
300 more who lived in the neighborhood came there for daily music
instruction. I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a
string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s “Ode
to Joy,” the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second
violinists fingering pizzicato notes. The harsh overhead fluorescent
lights, the white and ocher paint peeling off the concrete walls and
the bars on some windows (dating from the building’s origins) might
have cast a gloomy air over the proceedings. Instead, the pleasure
and pride that the children took in their collective effort was
infectious. “It was a shot in the arm,” Matias Tarnopolsky, the
artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, told me of his own
tour of the sistema in Caracas. “It reminded me of the reasons I went
into the music world as a profession.” Rattle has called the sistema
“the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in
the world.”

Like a far-reaching catchment network that comprises 1,800 teachers
and some 600 orchestras, the sistema pulls in youngsters who,
depending on talent and ambition, advance to statewide orchestras,
with the younger ones in children’s orchestras and those in their
late teens and 20s in youth orchestras. The best are funneled into
the national Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One of them, Edicson Ruiz, a
double bassist, at 19 became the youngest musician admitted to the
modern-day Berlin Philharmonic.) Directed by Dudamel since 1999, the
Bolívar Youth Orchestra enjoys a worldwide reputation for a sound
that is not only passionate — to be expected with youth orchestras —
but also surprisingly polished and balanced.

Dudamel, who began playing as an orchestra violinist in Caracas at
age 12, has known some of the players for half his life, and he
conducts them with the intimate assurance of someone who grew up with
them. “The relationship between the orchestra and me is so easy that
sometimes in rehearsal I don’t have to tell them anything — they are
waiting for my hands and my movements,” he says. During a rehearsal
he can good-naturedly chide, “No, muchachos,” wagging his forefinger
and shaking his head, in a way that probably wouldn’t work with the
Los Angeles Philharmonic. “We used to believe that a conductor is an
old, introverted guy,” says Rafael Payares, who plays French horn in
the orchestra and is one of Dudamel’s closest friends. “But this is
the same Gustavo you used to see playing the violin or throwing
parties. He’s still the same — crazy.” Dudamel is diminutive in
stature and warm but unshowy in conversation; when the music begins,
however, with his thick curly hair bouncing as he leaps passionately
on the podium, an electrifying avatar materializes.

Abreu and Dudamel are the two most identifiable figures of the
sistema, and Abreu’s mentoring of Dudamel has taken on the appearance
of fathering. “When I met Gustavo, I thought he was the son of José
Antonio — the way he walks, the way he talks, even the way he
writes,” Dudamel’s wife, Eloísa Maturén de Dudamel, a journalist and
former dancer, told me. At the all-night parties following Caracas
concerts of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, typically held in the home
where Abreu lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Dudamel will
always peel off to speak with the maestro. “I know when they sit down
and start talking, it can last forever,” EloÃsa says. “It can start
with one bar of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, and it can go to the universe.
José Antonio arrives very late at these parties. When he arrives, he
always kidnaps Gustavo. And when that happens, we know Gustavo is
finished with us for the night.” Some people wonder if Dudamel will
curtail his international commitments one day so he can assume the
role of Abreu’s successor. “Gustavo is much more than a successor,”
Abreu told me, laughing, when I posed the question. “He is a
universal glory of Latin America. He is a flag, a standard.”

The sistema is a kind of religion, and among its initiates, I grew
accustomed to hearing Abreu described in Godlike terms (all-seeing,
all-knowing, never-resting) and Dudamel celebrated as his
charismatic, filial prophet. Attending concerts of the Bolívar Youth
Orchestra in Caracas these days, Abreu can still be found seated
front and center, but he no longer feels the need to issue
instructions. At a performance last summer of Beethoven’s Third
“Eroica” Symphony and Bartok’s thorny First Piano Concerto, Dudamel
radiated eager boyishness and delight as he indicated the emphatic
successive downbeats in the “Eroica.” He grinned whenever the
musicians played a phrase to his liking, and his eyes twinkled and
his fingers plucked the air, as if wheedling the sound he wanted from
individual sections of the orchestra. His face and body expressed
torment, elation or despair, to elicit the mood he was after, while
the stick in his right hand and the undulations of his left relayed
the entrances and rhythms to the players. In his ringside seat, the
old maestro, in rapt absorption, beamed and nodded approvingly.
“Every time I see in Abreu’s face the joy of watching how Gustavo can
make music that is not written,” Frank Di Polo, a violist who is
married to Abreu’s sister, told me. “I think Abreu is not only proud.
It is his son now.”

Dudamel was raised in Barquisimeto, a city that prides itself on a
rich tradition of popular music. His father, Oscar, played the
trombone professionally, mainly with salsa bands, so Gustavo attended
concerts before he was old enough to speak. The family lived with
Oscar’s parents until Gustavo was 12, when Oscar landed an office job
in a nearby city and the parents relocated. Gustavo chose to stay
behind with his grandparents. (Both his parents now work for the
sistema.) Gustavo’s grandfather, who was a truck driver, died five
years ago, but I visited his grandmother, Engracia de Dudamel, in the
modern apartment in Barquisimeto that Gustavo bought for her in 2005.

At an early age, Engracia de Dudamel told me, Gustavo was
concentrating on music. By 5, he was studying music in the sistema in
the afternoons. When he came home from school at lunchtime, he would
arrange his Fisher-Price toy figures as if they were an orchestra,
making a little box for the conductor, and put a record on the
phonograph; he would ask her not to break up the orchestra while he
was in music class so that he could resume directing the musicians on
his return. One time his grandmother took him to see his father
perform in a classical concert in Barquisimeto. “He was very small, I
thought he was going to fall asleep,” she told me. “And he was
completely attentive to details of the instruments. He said,
‘Grandmother, I like this music.’ ” When I repeated this story to
Dudamel, he told me what the program had been.

Although the boy wanted to learn to play the trombone like his
father, his arms were still too short. Instead, he took up the
violin. “From the very beginning he showed signs of great talent and
learned everything very easily,” says Luis Giménez, the principal
administrator of the sistema in the state of Lara, of which
Barquismeto is the capital. When Gustavo was accepted by a renowned
violin instructor in Caracas, his grandparents proudly shepherded him
to weekly lessons, departing at 3 a.m. on Fridays to get him there.

Exceptional as were both his talent and family support, Dudamel also
benefited immeasurably from the institutional framework in place for
him to climb. “It is a brilliant result of the sistema,” Abreu says.
In the Lara children’s orchestra, Dudamel was soon appointed
concertmaster; and when Giménez formed the Amadeus Youth Orchestra to
explore Baroque string music, Dudamel served as concertmaster there
too. One afternoon, Giménez arrived late to a scheduled rehearsal of
the Amadeus Youth Orchestra in the school cafeteria and discovered
that the musicians had started playing without him, under the baton
of Dudamel, who was then 12 or 13. “He was great, he was like a
regular conductor,” Giménez says. He appointed Dudamel to be
assistant conductor, which meant in practice that the boy was doing
much of the conducting for both the Amadeus string ensemble and the
Lara children’s orchestra.

Abreu, who monitors in-house talent as closely as a studio mogul of
the Hollywood golden age, encouraged Dudamel to take conducting
classes along with his regular violin lessons in Caracas. So when he
saw Dudamel conduct the oversize orchestra in Barquisimeto for the
annual May concert in 1998, he wasn’t totally surprised by the boy’s
prowess. After the concert, he went to speak to Dudamel’s
grandparents and said, “I have to take him to Caracas.” They were
shocked, but they could not refuse. “We cried a lot,” Engracia
recalls. “And my husband told Dr. Abreu, ‘You are taking the light
out of this house.’ ” But Dudamel’s talent shone more brightly in the
big city. He honed his conducting skills rapidly; indeed, his last
decade has whirred forward like a sped-up film. In 1998, when Dudamel
was 17, Abreu gave him less than two months’ notice that he would be
conducting the national children’s orchestra in Mahler’s First
Symphony on a tour of Italy. Abreu coached him personally. At one
session, held on the move in typical Abreu fashion, he handed Dudamel
the partiture — the full conductor’s score — and told him to mark up
the first movement. Then the maestro went off to Mass. “I looked at
it and kept writing, ‘This is important, this is important,’ ”
Dudamel recalls. “You couldn’t read the score, I wrote so much. He
came back and said, ‘O.K., conduct.’ I went to take what I had
written and he said, ‘You don’t need the partiture.’ When I started,
he said: ‘Where is the entrance? Sing the second melody. Sing it in
reverse.’ ” It was sink or swim. During the orchestra’s tour, Dudamel
met the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli in Sicily. He became the first of
Dudamel’s foreign mentors, to be followed by Claudio Abbado, Daniel
Barenboim and Simon Rattle, who have all encouraged and coached him.

Over the last three years, Esa-Pekka Salonen has seen Dudamel develop
as his opportunities have exponentially increased. Most notably, a
year ago, he signed on to eight weeks annually as principal guest
conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony in Sweden. “He has had a few
years of very professional conducting around the world, and obviously
he is a very different kind of guy,” Salonen told me. “What hasn’t
disappeared is the sense of wonder and awe and discovery. These are
wonderful qualities in all human beings, but especially in a

Musicians grasp to put into words what makes it so exciting to play
for him. “When he’s conducting the piece, you’re feeling like it’s
just been composed, it’s like he’s creating it himself,” says the
L.A. Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Michele Zukofsky. “He
throws away the past. You’re not bogged down by what’s supposed to
be. It’s like jazz, in a way.” In a rehearsal for Dudamel’s debut at
Disney Hall, Zukofsky performed an extended solo that is featured in
Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta.” “I played an ascending run very
softly, pianissimo,” she recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, I love this.’ ” It
is a passage that she normally plays mezzoforte, or moderately loud.
“Even though it was a mistake, he enjoyed the difference,” she says.
He had her do it that way at each of the concerts.

Just as down to earth as Dudamel’s talent is the social
transformation that was needed to nurture it. In 1975, when Abreu
began what was then called the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the
nation had only two orchestras, the Venezuela Symphony and the
recently founded Maracaibo Symphony. Both were staffed mainly by
European émigrés. Initially, the chief appeal of the Youth Orchestra
was the professional opportunity it provided for young Venezuelan
classical musicians. Abreu had a greater goal, however — to create
many orchestras, which would embrace a segment of the population that
was thought to be incapable of appreciating the art form. “For me,
the most important priority was to give access to music to poor
people,” he says. “As a musician, I had the ambition to see a poor
child play Mozart. Why not? Why concentrate in one class the
privilege of playing Mozart and Beethoven? The high musical culture
of the world has to be a common culture, part of the education of

Abreu combines a deep knowledge of music (he studied composition and
conducting and performed on keyboard instruments in churches and
concert halls) and economics (he taught the subject at Andrés Bello
Catholic University in Caracas and served a term in the Venezuelan
National Assembly). So he was unusually well equipped to found an
orchestra system. He works without rest, despite a frail constitution
that was further weakened by serious abdominal surgery for ulcers in
1973. Ever since, he has been forbidden alcohol and restricted to a
low-fat, nondairy diet of small meals. An onset of diabetes later
deprived him of chocolate, his one indulgence. Today he is a gaunt,
bony figure, swaddled in woolen clothing even in the Venezuelan heat,
his bright eyes and smile blazing beneath a big domed forehead.

The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu’s orchestra
after it succeeded brilliantly at an international competition in
1977 in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, the sistema fell
under the dominion of social-services ministries, not the ministry of
culture. Strategically, this positioning has helped it to survive,
since Venezuelan presidents feel varying degrees of commitment to the
arts and, when possible, prefer to reject anything associated with
the previous regime. The current Chávez administration, best known in
this country for its populist, vehemently anti-American tone, has
been the most generous patron of the sistema so far, footing almost
all of its $29 million annual operating budget and ponying up for
additional capital projects. When I talked to leaders of the sistema,
I thought I detected a special emphasis on the socially progressive
aspects of the program that would gratify the Medici of the masses.
But that social-welfare element is central to Abreu’s philosophy, and
if the theme is being underscored now — well, such choices are a
musician’s prerogative.

In politically polarized Venezuela, a government-supported
institution walks a tightrope. For the sistema, the delicacy of the
footwork became unpleasantly public earlier this year. The minister
of communications asked the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, with Dudamel
conducting, to play the national anthem in late May, at the moment
that Radio Caracas Television, an outspokenly anti-Chávez
broadcasting network, went off the air for the last time. The
performance would be the first programming on the new,
Chávez-compliant station that replaced RCTV, which had lost its
license. Under longtime law, the national anthem is heard whenever a
TV station begins or ends its regular day of broadcasting in
Venezuela. Officially, the government was requesting a newly
performed, complete version of the anthem with an orchestral
introduction. In context, though, it would appear that the nation’s
acclaimed young conductor and orchestra were endorsing the Chávez
administration’s refusal to renew the RCTV license, a decision that
bitterly divided the nation.

Pleading technical impediments, the orchestra’s leaders begged off a
live appearance and instead provided a videotape. But because the
anthem on television is typically accompanied by a photomontage of
picturesque Venezuelan scenes, many viewers who watched the tape on
TV thought Dudamel and the orchestra were indeed performing live. In
the press and on blogs, some of Chávez’s critics — who tend to be the
people who buy concert tickets — expressed outrage and dismay.
Looking back, the orchestra’s leaders say they had no choice but to
provide the tape. “How could you say no?” explains Lanz, the
foundation’s executive director. “What will be your next answer? The
organization depends on the state, and they are asking for something
that is absolutely normal.” He allows, however, that “for some people
it was shocking.” The next day, he went to the manager of the new
station to say that “many people are using this as a political cause
and it is causing damage, not to us but to the kids,” and to request
that in the future, the audio be used without the images of the
orchestra and Dudamel. “They did it immediately, which I am thankful
for,” he says. “Having your anthem being used politically is
terrible.” Some people told me that Dudamel was upset by the
controversy, but to me he would speak only in generalities about the
current world situation. “We are in a point of intolerance,” he said.
“The national anthem is the glory of the country. It is for all
Venezuelans.” Abreu, a little disingenuously, told me: “We have
recorded the national anthem dozens of times. We were never told the
particular use of a particular recording. When we deliver a video, it
is for all. It is the national anthem. It is not our fault.” When I
said that it was a question of context, he repeated, with a pained
expression, “It is not our fault.”

Not to say that political posturing is demanded solely by the
government. The recording of the anthem was made in the sistema’s new
Center for Social Action Through Music, an 11-story, $25 million
building on the edge of downtown Caracas that officially opened at
the end of July. I had assumed that its cumbersome name constituted
another blandishment for the Chavistas, but I was wrong. It was a sop
to the Inter-American Development Bank, which helped underwrite it
with a $5 million loan and is now advancing $150 million for the
construction of seven other regional centers of the sistema
throughout Venezuela. Development banks prefer to lend money for
infrastructure: sewers, roads, water-treatment plants. Within the
I.D.B., many bankers objected to a loan for such a frivolous-seeming
project. “One of my colleagues joked, ‘Are you going to finance the
poor kids to carry the instruments of the rich kids?’ ” says Luis
Carlos Antola, a representative of the bank in Venezuela. “Because
there is the feeling that classical music is for the elite.” In fact,
the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million young
people who have been educated in the sistema, which show that
two-thirds of them are from poor backgrounds. Other studies link
participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and
declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff
in school dropout rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated
that every dollar invested in the sistema was reaping about $1.68 in
social dividends.

It is true, however, that Abreu argues that the poor are entitled to
not only Mozart and Beethoven but also to the best of art and
architecture. He retained two of Venezuela’s most distinguished
abstract artists to help decorate the center, which contains a
beautiful wood-paneled 1,200-seat auditorium, a 400-seat chamber
music hall (an afterthought of Abreu) and several acoustically
pleasing recording spaces. After attending concerts of Dudamel with
the Youth Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, which is
one of the poshest settings for music in the world, Abreu admired the
granite entry floor of the concert hall. “He went to the Ministry of
Finance,” Antola says. “He convinced them. There was not even enough
granite in the country. They had to bring it back from Panama, where
they had already sold it. He is like a serpent enchanter. You can’t

And his ambition is unbounded. Within Venezuela, Abreu is determined
to reach even further into society. Supported by the government, the
sistema has started to introduce its music program into the
public-school curriculum, aiming within five years to be in every
school and to double its enrollment to 500,000 children. The
organization is also pressing lower in the class structure, having
introduced a pilot music-education program in three cities for the
homeless children who subsist as scavengers in garbage dumps. Outside
the country, the sistema is cooperating with programs in nearly every
Latin American country; and in Europe, Simon Rattle, a leading
proponent of music education, has worked with Venezuelan experts to
enhance the already impressive program that his orchestra manages in

In a stroke of auspicious timing, Dudamel’s precocious success has
coincided with the sistema’s international advance. “Gustavo is the
visible face of what is coming behind,” Antola says. “You needed some
sort of emblem. People are discovering Gustavo and the sistema
simultaneously.” In his words and his achievements, Dudamel is an
unmatched spokesman for the sistema’s virtues. “You feel a young
sound and a young energy in the sistema,” he says. “We are not
looking at an individual goal, it is always collective. I am a
product of the sistema, and in the future, I will be here, working
for the next generations.”

As an international celebrity whose career was incubated by the
sistema, Dudamel is uniquely able to champion its expansion at home
and promote its adoption abroad. If successful, the “Youth Orchestra
L.A.” initiative of his new home, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, may
prove to be a pilot project for reinventing music education in this
country. You can see why devotees are looking to Venezuela with the
fervor of Ponce de León hunting for magically rejuvenating waters in
Florida. This dual vision — of hundreds of thousands of young people
transformed by the sistema and of a youthful conductor who can bring
audiences to their feet cheering — is a powerful sign of vitality to
rebut those grim-faced pulse takers who are forever proclaiming the
senescence of classical music.

Arthur Lubow, a contributing writer for the magazine, last wrote
about the ownership fight over Machu Picchu artifacts housed at Yale.

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