One of the most exciting things to happen in the classical music world in recent years happened in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It started with the vision of Dr. José Antonio Abreu Anselmi, a Venezuelan organist, conductor, and economist. During the 1970s, the Venezuelan government was enjoying a great deal of surpluses as a result of oil. However, then as now, there were wide disparities between rich and poor and a very small middle class. Venezuela is a dangerous place for children. Drug related violence is sadly still very common. As Dr. Abreu observed, many of Venezuela’s children were in danger of falling into lives of crime or drugs. He decided to do something about it. Having persuaded the Ministry of Health that the safety of children was at risk, he received a grant to establish a youth orchestra in Caracas which became the nucleus for what Vezuelans call el sistema or la orquestra.
FESNOJIV, the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, operates training centers and music schools throughout Venezuela. Most of the children who participate in FESNOJIV’s musical programs come from poor backgrounds and are determined to be at risk. Children are offered musical instruments and training in return for performing in FESNOJIV’s ensembles. You can read more about the things FESNOJIV does by visiting their website at http://www.fesnojiv.gob.ve. The goal is not so much as to turn the children into professional musicians as it is to help them experience the life-changing capabilities of great music, give them something constructive to do, and also instil in these children a sense of pride and accomplishment. The children are also taught teamwork and cooperation. The more advanced students, under the supervision of teachers, help teach less advanced students. This begins almost from the beginning. As soon as a student has mastered a few scales, he or she in turn helps teach the new students.
El Sistema has been lauded by some of the greatest musicians of our time. Claudio Abbado, Sir Simon Rattle, Luciano Pavarotti, and other great musicians have worked with FESNOJIV’s ensembles, especially the flagship orchestra, the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra. El Sistema has also produced some talented professional musicians as well. Gustavo Dudamel, the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of their great success stories. Born in 1981 in Barquismeto, Venezuela, Dudamel came from a poor background. He is convinced that were it not for the opportunity that FESNOJIV gave him, he could never have had the opportunity to make something of himself. He could well have become yet another stastistic. His talents for music were noted and he began conducting at age 12. He’s not even 30 yet and is now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic where he succeeded the great Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, is also music director of the Göteborg Symphony in Göteborg, Sweden, and remains as artistic advisor to the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra. Edicson Ruíz who plays the double bass, another proud alumnus of FESNOJIV’s ensembles, became at age 17 the youngest person ever to become a full member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in Germany, one of the greatest of all European orchestras. Like Maestro Dudamel, he grew up in Venezuela’s teeming slums. Other alumni of FESNOJIV’s ensembles have gone on to pursue successful careers in other fields of endeavour.
For his part, Dr. Abreu remains very much involved with FESNOJIV and has received many awards. Just recently, the French government conferred on him the Legion d’Honneur, the Japanese Emperor has conferred on him the Order of the Rising Sun, he has recieved the Gold Medal of the Italian Senate, and many, many other awards. He has been lauded as one of the greatest musical pedagogues of all time and as a great visionary. In 2008, he was awared the Glenn Gould Prize. In 2009, he received from the King of Sweden the Polar Music Prize. You can read Maestro Abreu’s biography here. This prize, one of the most prestigious and certainly one of the most lucrative in the field of music, has been conferred on musicians of the stature of Robert Moog (of synthesizer fame), Pierre Boulez, Ravi Shankar, Msitislav Rostropovich, Keith Jarrett, Isaac Stern, Elton John, Ennio Morricone, Bob Dylan, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and others. Dr. Abreu is also a shrewd politician, having obtained a great deal of government support from the Venezuelan governments of the 1980s and the current leftist government of Hugo Chávez Frias. The Venezuelan government now takes exceptional pride in Dr. Abreu’s achievements and FESNOJIV’s ensembles have become some of Venezuela’s best ambassadors.
Here is Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. I must say that their performance is pretty impressive for an orchestra of any age. Over 90% of these performers come from poor and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds including the conductor.