BEETHOVEN Symphonien Nos. 5 + 7 Dudamel


Symphonien No. 5 · No. 7
Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra
of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel
Int. Release 01 Sep. 2006
1 CD / Download
0289 477 6228 7
CD DDD 0289 477 6228 7 GH
Gustavo Dudamel leads his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in a spirited Deutsche Grammophon recording debut

Track List

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67



Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92


Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel

Total Playing Time 1:09:00

Gustavo Dudamel's rise to prominence has been meteoric.

Is Venezuela the unlikely country that could be the saviour of classical music? It does not seem such a ludicrous notion when I watch the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra perform in Rome . . . Dudamel shares the podium with Claudio Abbado . . . There are more than 100 children on stage, and, playing Beethoven's Fifth, they sound less like an orchestra than like a solid wall of thunderous, elemental sound. But more than that, the vitality of this music-making, the rapt faces of these young musicians, render words such as "urgent" and "passionate" utterly inadequate. In fact, everything they do makes European and North American ways of dealing with classical music seem grey and dull. These young people, aged up to 25, are playing as if their lives depended upon it ¿ and in some ways, perhaps they do.

If you think this orchestra and its firebrand maestro have nothing to add to the countless versions of these Beethoven warhorses that crowd the catalog, guess again. They perform both symphonies with tremendous intensity and commitment, as if their young lives would somehow be forfeit if they didn't. Beethoven's music clearly means the world to these players, and they embrace it as a shining symbol of their own optimism, and hope for a better future than most kids of their generation are likely to know . . . The orchestra sounds solid in all departments, and there are characterful flute and oboe solos. The sound is clean if somewhat recessed, adding little glamour to performances strong enough musically not to require any studio sweetening. A sensational debut disc.

Why is a youth orchestra playing two of the mostrecorded symphonies in history? With an unknown 25-year-old conductor? On the Deutsche Grammophon label? Answer: This is model music-making . . . every phrase is played with an exciting, deeply
internalized sense of ownership that adult orchestras would do well to emulate . . . Dudamel is a significant talent.

The fiery and gifted young maestro might have chosen lesser-known Latin American works for his debut on Deutsche Grammophon. Instead he opted for two of the most frequently recorded staples of the repertory: Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. The gamble has certainly paid off. The members of the Caracas-based Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra . . . combine youthful enthusiasm, technical finesse and mature profundity: a rare combination, and an ideal one to capture the urgency and optimism of Beethoven's Fifth. From the works sinister opening motif through the lyrical second movement to the spirited final allegro, there is a refreshing sense of excitement. Since this is, presumably, the first time most of these young musicians have played the work, their polished reading is all the more impressive. In Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Mr. Dudamel again elicits gorgeous phrasing from strings and winds. The hused, beautifully shaded Allegretto is particularly lovely, and the spirited Allegro comes off with unbridled brio.

. . . quite simply the hottest new conductor for a generation . . . there¿s a rare freshness and dynamism here. Taking on two such weighty pieces was a risky move . . . but, happily, Dudamel¿s audacity pays off.

There's a scarcely believable freshness and virtuosity in the playing . . . The opening of the Fifth Symphony is bright and energetic, and all the phrasing and dynamic markings are scrupulously observed . . . beautifully played . . . thanks to the clarity of the recording, you can hear all the detail . . . The Seventh Symphony is . . . promising, with a first movement that really dances, and an Allegretto which doesn't get bogged down in sentiment. In both symphonies there's energy and lightness in the scherzos, and the Seventh also benefits from a trio which slows down enough to make a contrast . . . a major talent . . .

On this showing, the 100-strong orchestra performs with exhilarating panache, its youth revealed . . . Dudamel and his charges bound and leap joyously in No. 7's first movement, with marvellously delicate pianissimo playing here and elsewhere. They also generate a Bacchic exultation in the finales, endorsing the conductor's claim that "this music's energy is fantastic for young musicians . . . it becomes something amazing, because they all share this hope".

Grammophon has a point: on the evidence here, Gustavo Dudamel is a genuine, self-evident and convincing talent. And this young Venezuelan conductor also has his nation¿s excellent youth orchestra playing out of their skins . . . Dudamel¿s flair, energy and no-nonsense directness together generate a descent performance of the Fifth Symphony, plus a truly exciting one of the Seventh, whose coruscating finale really tears along.

. . . they are never less than competent. In the fifth, Dudamel¿s reading of the first movement is fast and clipped, qualities that will characterize much of the rest of the music on this disc. He manages some very interesting voicing in the coda, and then maintains good dynamic control of the strings in the second movement. The third is crisp and swift, the fourth vigorous and precise. In the Seventh Symphony . . . the overall reading is more genial. The second movement passes by uneventfully, the third is perky and speedy, and the entire final movement is simply breathless . . . [Dudamel and his orchestra] have promise and skill.

. . . this is a most unusual record . . . The 25-year-old Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel is a . . . phenomenon . . . a vibrant, glowing Seventh . . . Dudamel is a born conductor . . . The sound is full-bodied and carefully groomed . . .

This young man has been studying and practising conducting for 19 years, and, if this recording is anything to go by, he is already the possessor of a talent of tremendous gifts. The technical quality of the orchestral playing on this disc is superb . . . the impact this music now makes upon us when the results are as impressive as they are here. The musicians in this orchestra can certainly teach their older, more established and more famous European and American counterparts a thing or two about genuine ensemble playing, about penetrating beneath the surface of the music in matters of phrasing, tone-colour and a dozen or more other aspects that separate the very good from the inspired . . . This disc is, I submit, a demonstration of what great music-making can be, and why we should never accept the second-rate in great art. Given, from my description, that the orchestral playing is of the highest quality, we turn to Dudamel's account of these over-recorded works. His tempos are magnificent . . . Throughout both symphonies the conductor's control and genuine understanding . . . are thrilling and moving . . . the most enthusiastic recommendation to this disc, one of the most uplifting records of Beethoven symphonies I have heard in many years.

. . . this recording is testament enough to the power of music. It's also proof of the power of these two symphonies. Performed by Dudamel's youth orchestra, which has been hailed by conductor Simon Rattle as an exciting force in music today, they're vibrant and alive.

The playing is disciplined, beautiful . . . and suffused with an energy . . . You feel the faith from performers who have earned it.

. . . with Dudamel leading, [the orchestra] is capable of world-class performances . . . His version is ardent, fresh and beautifully shaped, with a yearning innocence that leaves you wanting more . . .

. . . there's a rare freshness and dynamism here . . . Dudamel's audacity pays off.

. . . energetic and bright performances . . .

Der Dirigent Gustavo Dudamel aus Venezuela ist ein Mensch, der vor Lebensfreude und Energie zu leuchten scheint. Ob er nun, nicht selten breit lachend, am Dirigentenpult winkt und springt oder hinterher in der Künstlergarderobe jedermann umarmt ¿ eine unbändige Lebenslust geht von ihm aus, deren ansteckender Wirkung man sich schwer entziehen kann . . . Dudamel ist ein höchst professioneller Dirigent: Gestandene Orchestermusiker schwärmen von der Effizienz und der Liebenswürdigkeit seiner Probenarbeit . . . die Ergebnisse können sich hören lassen . . . Dvoráks Neunte, die er im vergangenen Sommer in Köln dirigierte, wurde gerade in der Vielfalt und Feinheit ihrer motivischen Verästelungen, ihres fast naturhaft lebendigen Gewebes aus Nebenstimmen ausgelotet, mit Details und Klangfarben, die man fast nie wahrnimmt, und doch immer mit sicherem Blick auf die Architektur des Ganzen . . . Und wer ihn mit dem venezolanischen Jugendorchester, das nun auf den Befreier Südamerikas Simón Bolívar getauft worden ist, schon einmal erlebt hat, der weiß, woraus sich Dudamels Lebensfreude und Energie speist.

. . . Gustavo Dudamel ist bald der weltbeste Dirigent . . . der Dirigent Esa-Pekka Salonen . . . meinte: "Der Junge erinnert mich an den frühen Rattle." Rattle selber lässt sich mit den Worten zitieren, Dudamel sei "der begabteste und faszinierendste Dirigent, den ich kenne". Tatsächlich geht ein wichtiges Signal von der Karriere Dudamels aus: Die Zeiten schlechtgelaunter Dirigier-Autokraten ist vorbei . . . Dudamels spritziges, alle Widerstände mit Temperament überschäumendes Talent beweist er auch auf CD . . . Mit seinem Orchester pustet Dudamel jugendliche Frischluft in die verstaubten Ritzen. Geladen wie ein Knallkörper werden die alten Stücke wieder geniessbar. Übermütig wirbelt der Virtuose den Schlussatz der Siebten ins Ziel.

25 Jahre zählt er, und erfahrene Kollegen staunen: Er habe ihn tief beeindruckt, bekennt Claudio Abbado, und Simon Rattle nennt ihn den begabtesten Dirigenten, den er je getroffen habe . . . Für das venezuelanische Jugendorchester also nicht Routine und philharmonischer Alltag, sondern ¿ wörtlich verstanden ¿ neue Musik. Genau so spielen sie die Werke: vital, spannungsgeladen, mitreissend. Dabei keineswegs in effektheischende Alfresco-Gestik verfallend, sondern durchwegs mit bemerkenswerter Feinarbeit in den Details. In den acht Jahren, in denen Dudamel mit dem Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela zusammenarbeitet, vermochte er dieses jugendliche Ensemble in der Tat auf ein höchst bemerkenswertes Niveau zu hissen. Das hat etwas Anspringendes, sogar Aufreizendes an sich, Beethoven sozusagen als Frischzellenkur . . . Trotz ausladender Besetzung bevorzugt Dudamel vife Tempi . . . und deutliche Akzente. Kurzum, kein Ausbaden, sondern messerscharfe Artikulation. So aufregend kann Beethoven sein!

Musik, die vom Schicksal spricht, vom Zorn, von der Hoffnung und schließlich von der Freude. Und so gehen die jungen Musiker auch an die Partituren heran: ohne jegliche Berührungsängste und voller Schwung. Das Zusammenspiel ist hervorragend, die Details trotz der großen Besetzung kammermusikalisch herausgearbeitet, die dynamische Bandbreite groß, der Klang bei mäßigem Vibratoeinsatz eher trocken, romantische Schwelgerei wird vermieden . . . im Konzertsaal . . . sind junge Musiker wie das Simón Bolívar Orchester und sein Dirigent Gustavo Dudamel einfach unschlagbar mitreißend.

Frisch, zupackend und mit vitaler Stringenz musizieren die Jugendlichen unter seiner Leitung.

. . . eine bezaubernde CD . . . das Album [ist] ein Leuchtturm in einem Meer an eher klassikfernen Jugendlichen.

Gustavo Dudamel hat Deutschland im Sturm erobert . . . Dirigenten, heißt es, reifen erst mit den Jahren. Erst reichlich akkumulierte Erfahrung ebnet ihnen den Weg in die Weltklasse. Dudamel ist dazu das Gegenmodell . . . unverhoffter Energiespender von außerhalb, eine Art Naturphänomen, aufgetaucht inmitten einer arrivierten Gesellschaft . . . es ist keineswegs jugendlicher Überschwang, mit dem diese neue Beethovenaufnahme überzeugt, sondern ein geradezu klassischer Zugriff auf die Musik, bei sorgfältiger Ausarbeitung aller Details. Das Simón-Bolívar-Jugendorchester von Venezuela ist ein Klangkörper von beeindruckendem Format . . . Nicht die Tempowahl ist exzentrisch, sondern die Unbekümmertheit, mit der Dudamel den gesamten Ballast der historisch informierten Aufführungspraxis und die "Errungenschaften" der Interpretationsgeschichte über Bord wirft . . . es wird flott, aber entspannt musiziert . . . [Es sind] Details, an denen der Rang des jugendlichen Dirigenten Dudamel sich bereits jetzt erweist.

. . . [eine] Interpretation auf Leben und Tod. Radikaler kann man Beethoven derzeit nicht hören.

. . . hier haben wir nicht den Normalfall, weder in kommerzieller noch in künstlerischer Hinsicht . . . Wo immer dieses Orchester und sein Dirigent Gustavo Dudamel auftreten, ist die Begeisterung groß. Selten ist in traditionellen Konzertsälen derart mitreißendes Musizieren, derart intensive Kommunikation zwischen Musikern und Zuhörern zu erleben.

Am Pult steht Gustavo Dudamel, schon jetzt einer der großen . . . [die Beethoven-CD] bezwingt durch ihre anspringende Leidenschaft, durch ihren tänzerischen Schwung, durch ihre glühende, unbedingte, ja sogar: plebejische Haltung. Nebenbei klingt sie auch spieltechnisch absolut professionell . . . Wirklich ein Wunder mit System.

Zwei markante Beethoven-Symphonien (auf DG/Universal) zeigen packend, vital und hoffnungsfroh, was es heißt, ums Leben zu spielen: die bewegendste Klassik-CD des Jahres.

. . . [hier] ist Erstaunliches geleistet worden. Dem Orchester, dessen Mitglieder zwischen 11 und 25 Jahre alt sind, gelingt mit dieser Beethoven-Aufnahme jedenfalls ein fulminanter diskographischer Einstand; und der 25-jährige, inzwischen bereits zum Chefdirigenten in Göteborg erkorene Gustavo Dudamel erweist sich nicht nur als inspirierender Motivator, sondern auch als ernst zu nehmender Interpret . . . Entscheidend sind die rückhaltlose Hingabe der jungen Musiker und der geradezu feurige Enthusiasmus, der aus diesen Aufführungen spricht. Und entscheidend ist, dass Dudamel durchaus eigenständige gestalterische Akzente zu setzen vermag. In der Fünften Sinfonie etwa hält er sich im Andante con moto auffallend zurück, um dann die beiden Schlusssätze umso zugkräftiger zu steigern. Und in der Siebten setzt er zwar auf unerbittlichen rhythmischen Drive, ohne aber die nachdenklicheren, dunkleren Untertöne zu kurz kommen zu lassen. Unbedingt hörenswert.

Den Papst hat er ebenso begeistert wie die Manager der wichtigsten Schallplattenfirmen und die Intendanten bedeutender Orchester: Gustavo Dudamel hat das Zeug, zum männlichen Pendant von Anna Netrebko zu avancieren.

Der 26-jährige Venezolaner verbindet Charisma mit Talent und Temperament . . . Nach einer CD mit Beethovens 5. und 7. Sinfonien, die . . . durch einen frischen, vitalen, durch und durch musikantischen Zugang überzeugte, legen Dudamel und die Seinen nun mit Mahlers 5. Sinfonie nach . . .

Das verrückte Finale der Siebenten ist zu purer Energie an der Grenze zur Entmaterialisierung gebündelt. Atemberaubend. Adelante muchachos!

. . . il sait faire entendre la puissance dynamique du texte et sa progression organique. Avec un intéressant influx nerveux et une réelle force rythmique dans ses grands climats, l'interprétation de la Septième Symphonie paraît . . . inventive, souple et personnelle.

Dans l'opus 92, sa virtuosité et son élan impétueux seront . . . séducteurs. Construit sur un solide et homogène jeu d'ensemble, le chef fait émerger une ample et généreuse introduction cheminant vers un irrésistible et insouciant Vivace (le crescendo vers la coda est un modèle du genre!) . . . les amateurs de grande vitesse seront emportés dans le fougueux tourbillon du Scherzo, prolongé par un Finale pris à un train d'enfer . . . [Nous] noterons l'aspect original et le courage d'un jeune artiste qui ose afficher un style très personnel dans des partitions où les licences ne sont guère autorisées.

. . . ce qui séduit d'emblée, c'est l'accent, l'impulsion, la volonté à la fois enthousiaste et ordonnée du geste; le sérieux, la concentration, la maîtrise des phrasés et de l'architecture d'ensemble impressionnent chez un si jeune chef . . . Le style est étonnamment juste et mature, c'est-à-dire vécu, intériorisé. Sans conteste, un formidable musicien rayonne ici, et captive son orchestre.

... la Quinta que nos brinda Dudamel tiene la rara virtud de ser precisa pero no académica, contundente pero no agresiva.

    The Music is a River

Dudamel on Beethoven

At 24, Gustavo Dudamel has engagements with leading orchestras from Berlin to Los Angeles, Milan to London. He is beyond doubt one of the most sought-after conductors of his generation. But just two years ago, the slight Venezuelan had never conducted a European orchestra.

A spectacular win at the 2004 Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg pushed Dudamel into the international spotlight. A few months later, he sprang in for the ailing Frans Brüggen to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in the closing concert of Bonn's prestigious Beethoven Festival. The concert was such a success that he was invited to return the following year, this time with his own ensemble, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The response was intense. This was a new way of looking at Beethoven, a New World freshness that the old world badly needed.

But Germany was not new territory for Dudamel. He had made his debut in Berlin's Philharmonie with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela as an 18-year-old, a year after taking on the job of music director. That appointment, in turn, was a natural development for someone who had been appointed music director of Venezuela's Amadeus Chamber Orchestra as a 14-year-old. Such precocity is, as Dudamel tells it, quite normal in his home country. Only after taking up the Amadeus post did he begin formal instruction, having fallen into conducting quite by accident. At a rehearsal of the youth orchestra in his home town of Barquisimeto, the 12-year-old Dudamel stepped onto the empty podium when the conductor was ill.

“I just thought, 'I can do this'. I remember it vividly. It was funny, because my friends were playing, and they all laughed. But five minutes later, it was different. They thought, 'OK, we are working. He is the conductor now.' Five months later they gave me the assistant position."

What might seem extravagant hubris in a European context, where conducting is a profession first approached by tertiary students, was normal in the context of Venezuela's revolutionary national music education system (the Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela - Fesojiv, or the sistema for short). There children begin to take music lessons as young as two, and youngsters are often encouraged to try their hand at conducting. “I was 12, but I remember that I had a friend who was 8, and he was already conducting our orchestra," says Dudamel.

Dudamel joined the sistema as a 10-year-old, hoping to play the trombone. “I knew the trombone because of salsa and popular music. But my arms were too short. My friends had violins, so I thought, 'well, why not?'"

But his interest in music began much earlier, encouraged by his trombonist father. An aunt brought a miniature score of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony back from a trip to the US when Dudamel was six years old, and it became his favourite book. He read it at every opportunity, and lined up his tin soldiers in orchestral formation, conducting them with vehemence.

“Then I used to do my own rehearsals with CDs. Beautiful orchestras that I could conduct in my home! I would put the CD on pause and tell the players what they could do better. And I had a captive audience - my family had to watch me."

Though he laughs, Dudamel also credits the sistema with saving him from a life on the streets. “Music certainly changed my life. I can look back now and see that many of the boys of my age went on to become involved in drugs and crime. Those who played music did not."

When he was 14, Dudamel began to receive formal conducting lessons from Rodolfo Saglimbeni. At 17, he started to study with José Antonio Abreu, founder and guiding spirit of the Venezuelan sistema. Abreu, with his profoundly humanitarian philosophy and deep commitment to music as a force of social change in Venezuela, remains a seminal influence in Dudamel's life.

With it comes an absolute faith in the fact that music changes lives, a fact which colours both musical approach and performance style in Venezuela. And to Dudamel, there is no composer who epitomizes this more than Beethoven. “Every year in Caracas we have a Beethoven festival", he explains. “Beethoven is a symbol for us in Venezuela. This music is very important for young people. For all of humanity, of course, but for young people especially. A professional orchestra has played these symphonies hundreds of times. For us it's new music. And it's a new vision of the music, because the players don't have an existing version in their heads.

“The Fifth Symphony is not just about the notes. Everybody knows the opening motif. It is fate, it's destiny, and that's something important for everybody. You don't need to explain it. It's inside the notes, and you can feel it. The symphony opens with anger. But if you play it all the way through, following the line of development, you come to the last movement, which ends with hope.

“You listen, and you can feel this in the music. A lot of the children come from the street. They have experienced all these horrible things, crime and drugs and family problems. But when they play this music, they have something special. They all share this hope. And it becomes something amazing."

Dudamel is aware of the magnitude of the risk involved in choosing Beethoven for his debut recording with Deutsche Grammophon. It is not, he explains, that he feels he and his orchestra have more to say about this repertoire than anybody else, but simply that they have their own voice.

“If you go into a CD shop, you will find thousands of recordings of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. We are a youth orchestra. Why start with such a difficult composer? But then I thought, why not? It is necessary to know Beethoven when you are young. Technically, it is important for the development of your sound. And then there is the simple fact that Beethoven is a genius. The Fifth Symphony is about destiny, about the future. And the Seventh is sheer joy. The energy in this music is fantastic for young musicians.

“Of course Beethoven himself could never have heard his music played by such a large symphony orchestra. But I am sure he would have loved it if he'd had the chance. One of the things that is special about this orchestra is that they can play a piano similar to a small orchestra. And a forte similar to either a small orchestra or a large orchestra. It is easy to work with these musicians, because they understand things, and they are very committed.

“Of course, these are not my last versions of these symphonies. Already, since recording them, we play them differently. Because music is a river, you know? It's not the same water from one day to the next. It's not a glass with water inside. And it's good to play this music now."


    The Story behind the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

The organization's name is long, but its aim is simple. The Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquesta Juvenil e Infantil de Venezuela (Fesojiv for short) is the state foundation which watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. The walls of the crowded Caracas head office are plastered with photographs of generations of beaming children and their instruments. So many grins, so many children, so many instruments that there is hardly any blank wall left.

“Our first goal is not to create professional musicians," explains Xavier Moreno, secretary of Fesojiv. “Our goal is to rescue the children."

In fact, with its 30 professional symphony orchestras and a growing stream of internationally acclaimed soloists, Fesojiv (which Venezuelans refer to as el Orquesta or the sistema) is not doing a bad job of creating professional musicians. But its greatest achievement are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90% of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

Lennar Acosta, now a clarinettist in the Caracas Youth Orchestra and a tutor at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory, had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offences before the sistema offered him a clarinet.

“At first, I thought they were joking," he recalls. “I thought nobody would trust a kid like me not to steal an instrument like that. But then I realized that they were not lending it to me. They were giving it to me. And it felt much better in my hands than a gun."

Edicson Ruiz became the youngest-ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 17. Eight years earlier, he was working as a part-time supermarket packer to supplement his mother's meagre income in a rough inner-city suburb of Caracas. The street, with its alcohol, drugs and gang warfare, was a strong lure, and his behaviour was becoming increasingly violent. Then a neighbour told him about the local music school.

“They gave me a viola and sat me in the middle of the orchestra. I heard the sound of the double basses, and I thought, yes! This is the instrument for me!," recalls Ruiz, grinning at the memory.

“A few months later they put me in the national youth orchestra. Of course, I could not play the music! They always do it like that; they throw you in at the deep end.

“I remember looking at the music on the stand at my first orchestral rehearsal. It was a Tchaikovsky symphony. And I thought, 'They are crazy!' But they never, ever say, 'You won't be able to do that.' Nobody ever said no to me in the orchestra. Never."

Acosta and Ruiz tell stories that are echoed by the 400,000 youngsters who have grown with the sistema since its inception. The principles are simple. Children as young as two are given an instrument as soon as they can hold it. Tuition, outings, music and, where necessary, social support are all furnished free of charge in return for the child's agreement to play in one of the sistema's ensembles. Lessons are in groups. Children who have mastered a scale or two are delegated to teach younger children. Peer support is fundamental. And orchestral playing is part of the programme from the beginning. Six days a week, four hours a day, the children play music together in one of 90 music schools, or núcleos, around the country.

Not surprisingly under these circumstances, their rate of progress is astonishingly fast. In an atmosphere of encouragement, affection, mutual support and sheer, unfettered joy in the music at hand, the children have often reached a level of instrumental accomplishment that would win them entry into a European university by the time they are in their early teens.

As more and more outstanding Venezuelan musicians hit the international circuit, the world is taking notice. Claudio Abbado has made extended visits to Venezuela, rehearsing and performing with the youngsters for weeks, and speaks of the “sistema" in superlative terms. Zubin Mehta, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and the late Giuseppe Sinopoli have all worked with the Venezuelan ensembles, and left expressing the highest praise. Simon Rattle has called it “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world." The programme has received awards from UNICEF and UNESCO and expressions of admiration from figures as diverse as former South African president Nelson Mandela and actor Roger Moore.

It is all the vision of one man. José Antonio Abreu, qualified economist, organist and politician, resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country 30 years ago. At the time, there were just two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, both employing largely European musicians.

Abreu gathered eleven youngsters for a rehearsal in an underground car park, and told them that they were making history. At the next rehearsal, there were 25 musicians; the following day, 46; the day after, 75. In the heady days of the Venezuelan oil boom, Abreu managed to win government funding for his scheme from the department of health, arguing that the well-being of children at risk was at stake.

Today, the sistema employs 15,000 music teachers. The government funds it to the tune of an annual $29 million - in a country where the average annual income is below $3,500, enough to work miracles.

Extraordinarily, Abreu has persuaded seven successive changes of government to back his sistema.

“The government funds it precisely because of the social emphasis of the programme," he explains. “The state has understood perfectly that this programme, although it works through music, is essentially a social project, a project for human development, which is the main aim of the Venezuelan state.

“For the children that we work with, music is practically the only way to a dignified social destiny. Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It is a big family which is dedicated to harmony, to those beautiful things which only music brings to human beings."

Abreu, now 66 years old, is an omnipresent figure in the sistema, attending several concerts a day, often with a government minister in tow. A diminutive figure in jacket and tie, tireless, devout and universally respected, he is greeted everywhere with warmth and admiration. He is the genius behind the complex system of regional núcleos, and their unique pedagogical approach.

“Our pedagogy is based on individual creativity on the part of the teachers," says Abreu. “They are very inventive. They have adapted the European methodology to our culture. And research has shown that music has changed the lives of the children, of their families, of entire communities here."
Shirley Apthorp