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VENEZUELA: A New Life for At-Risk Kids, and Music Too!

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 24 2007 (IPS) - On tour in Germany after performing to rave reviews at the BBC Promenade Concerts in London, the members of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra and its wild-haired conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have made a remarkable journey from their less than promising social origins.

They received a standing ovation at the Royal Albert Hall, in London, on Aug.19. “In 30 years of attending every season of the Proms, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said John Douglas, professor of music at Oxford University.

Behind their success is “the system,” shorthand for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (FESNOJIV), a network of 125 youth and children’s orchestras founded 28 years ago by José Antonio Abreu, which has put instruments and music scores in the hands of 400,000 children and young people.

Abreu, 68, an economist, organist, conductor and minister of culture from 1989 to 1993, started to give underprivileged kids a new beginning when he gathered 11 young people together for a rehearsal in an underground carpark. The next day there were 25, then 46, and then 75.

The children’s orchestras then began to spring up all over the country. Abreu sees them as a way of rescuing children and young people in at-risk social, health or school situations because of poverty. Eight Venezuelan administrations have financed the “system”, which has a budget of about 30 million dollars a year.

“For most of the children we work with, music is a pathway to social dignity. Poverty means loneliness, sadness and anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork. This is a human development project, which is also the aim of the Venezuelan state,” said Abreu in a recent interview with IPS.

Xavier Moreno, a former executive secretary of FESOJIV, has said: “Our main goal is not to create professional musicians. Our goal is to rescue the children.”

They succeeded in the case of Lerner Acosta, who was arrested nine times for theft and drug possession before “the system” offered him a clarinet.

“At first I thought it was a joke. Nobody would trust someone like me not to steal an instrument like that, but it was for real,” Acosta said. Now he plays the clarinet in the Caracas Youth Orchestra, and teaches at the Simón Bolívar Conservatory.

Edicson Ruiz worked part-time as a bag boy in a supermarket to eke out his mother’s meagre salary until he was nine. He still remembers being given a viola and a seat in the middle of the orchestra. At 17, he became the youngest ever double bass player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Two feature-length documentaries have been made about the experiences of kids from “the system.” “Tocar y luchar” (Playing and Fighting), which offers the stories of six boys, is by Alberto Arvelo, who was himself a musician in one of these orchestras between the ages of nine and 17. “Maroa,” by Solveig Hoogesteijn, is about a young girl rescued from a life of crime through music.

Now in Germany, the Simon Bolívar Orchestra is waiting for Argentine-Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim, the soloist in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, to be performed in the Berlin Staatskapelle on Sept. 16 and 17, conducted by Dudamel, 26, who was once his student.

Dudamel, too, is a product of “the system,” although his family was better off than most. He studied music from an early age, taking up the violin at 10, and when he was 14 he began to study conducting with Abreu and other teachers. By 1999 he was already conducting the Simón Bolívar Children’s Orchestra, and by 2000, the Youth Orchestra.

Since 1999 he has won admiration in Chile, Mexico, the United States, France, Italy and Germany. In 2004 he won the Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany.

Last year he won the Pegasus prize at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and was named principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, which he conducted in the 2006 Proms. Dudamel has now been named to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in the United States.

In September he will continue to accompany the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra to the German cities of Essen, Lubeck, Leipzig, Dresden, Bonn, Frankfurt and Berlin, where he will be joined by Barenboim.

“The ‘system’ has been a real source of inspiration. Our musicians love music passionately, and enjoy it. That’s why they make the audience enjoy it, too,” said the young conductor.

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