An Inspiring Story in Venezuela Under Threat

About 40 years ago, a most remarkable, inspired, noble-minded (and perhaps a little angelic) Venezuelan gentleman had fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a musician, a prize-winning pianist, and knew the value this entailed.  He wanted to create an opportunity for Venezuelan children, especially of the lower and middle classes, to enjoy the benefits involved in playing instruments and creating music. For him, music and art were no longer to be a monopoly of the elites but is a right for all the people.

He started in a garage with eleven students, and overcoming many setbacks, managed to teach a lot of eager children how to play an instrument and put a little orchestra together.  He created the Simon Bolivar Venezuelan Youth Orchestra. Donors for instruments, music scores and music stands were found, and special teachers were trained, not only to teach how to play an instrument, but also personal integrity, ethical and aesthetical values, the social, emotional and intellectual side of life, a desire for perfection and excellence, and building self-esteem and confidence.

Mother Teresa has said that the most miserable thing about poverty is not lack of bread or roof, it's a feeling of not being anyone, without personal worth. These children in the orchestra were made aware of their worth, the orchestra or choir provided them with a noble identity, they became role models for their parents and impressed everyone they met with their self-confidence and commitment to what they were doing.

They also had to comply with the strict rules: no quarreling, no wasting time, punctuality, results of practicing at home, and other things, and being friendly and helpful to the other musicians.  Those who broke the rules were asked to leave. So, more and more children came, encouraged by their families and their own enthusiasm.

Somebody asked, "But does the Mafia allow this?" That’s because they never allow anything they cannot make money from. The answer was, "Yes, they allow it because their children are participating." The girls in the orchestras are shielded from the danger of prostitution, and the boys are prevented from becoming thugs or gang-members.

A reporter who had heard a new orchestra had been established in a village not far from Caracas went there to have a look. As he stepped off the bus, he saw a little girl standing barefoot in the dust of the road, a little violin tucked under her chin, playing "Twinkle, Twinkle Liitte Star". This is so thrilling, this child will have a bright future. From the moment a child learns to play a musical instrument, she is no longer poor, she becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level. This is enormously praiseworthy.

The name of this wonderful man who created all this opportunity is Jose Antonio Abreu. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was given to Barack Obama instead that year.

Some of these musicians have already achieved fame. One boy, Edicson Ruiz, who played the double bass in the San Augustins Junior Orchestra so proficiently that when Sir Simon Rattle visited Caracas to learn more about Abreu's amazing project, he was so impressed that Ruiz was immediately hired as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rattle, and off he went to Berlin.

Then we come to a giant, the world-famous conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Dudamel was born on January 26, 1981 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. He joined an El Sistema orchestra at the age of 10, playing the violin. At the Jacinto Lara Conservatory he studied many subjects under many excellent teachers, including composition. In 1995, he began studying conducting, receiving later refinement from Abreu.

In 1999 he was appointed director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and toured several countries. In 2002 and 2003 he worked as an assistant to Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin and Salzburg. In 2004 he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany. In April 2006 Dudamel was appointed principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, and in November 2006, he made his debut at La Scala, Milan, conducting Don Giovanni. In Sept. 2007 he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival, and in April 2007 he conducted a concert to celebrate the 80th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. In 2017 he was the youngest-ever conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic's famous New Year's Day concert, watched by 60 million people in 90 countries.

He has been featured three time on 60 Minutes and interviewed by Christine Amanpour on CNN. He has worked to raise awareness of the importance of music education by appearing at the United Nations and the White House. He served as the 2018/2019 artist in residence at Princeton University and in April 2019 conducted the Princeton University Orchestra and the Princeton University Glee Club in a concert that culminated his year-long residency.

Dudamel was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2009. He is one of the most decorated musicians of his generation -- to name all the prizes, medals and awards he has received would take two pages.

In 2007, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London to great acclaim

(Photo credit: Welland)

But the crowning jewel of his career was his appointment as musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In April 2007, during a guest engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel learned he had been named the next musical director of the LA Phil, beginning with the 2009/2010 season, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen, also a giant in the music world. His contract has been extended every five years and is now valid until 2021/2022.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 22, 2019 and in his acceptance speech, said it should belong to Venezuela and that "tomorrow is a crucial day (23rd) when the voice of the masses must be heard and respected," referring to the planned national protest against the on-going Venezuelan presidential crisis.

Unfortunately Dr. Abreu, a consummate musician, astute politician, who had secured government funding for El Sistema (one of Madura's showpiece government-run programs) -- died in March 2018 at the age of 78. Since then, Eduardo Mendez, who worked alongside Abreu for 15 years, has taken over the management of El Sistema's 300 schools that connect children with classical music, and according to El Sistema's figures, the 827,000 children and young musicians that once participated in its programs throughout Venezuela.

However, Venezuela’s crippling economic crisis has forced hundreds of musicians to leave the country with their parents. A few of the teachers and some of the members of The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra have left, although these vacancies were soon filled with younger members. The musicians are against the government, and sometimes join in protests, but conflict with El Sistema's benefactor, Pres. Nicolas Maduro and his socialist government, must be avoided by Mendez and the leaders who are dependent on government funding.

Tensions between El Sistema and Venezuelan officials surfaced last year when Dudamel criticized steps by Pres. Maduro that led to the installation of an assembly dominated by government supporters, seen as another step toward dictatorship. A government minister was caught on camera telling El Sistema's employees to toe the party line or find a new job. Maduro asked Dudamel to "not attack those of us who have been crucial to the continuation of your movement." 

Shortly after this heated exchange, two concert tours which were going to be conducted by Dudamel through the United States and Asia were cancelled. No reason was given. So, although Dudamel and the musicians detest Maduro and his government, they are obligated to him for the program’s continued existence. Maduro is using El Sistema as a propaganda tool. It is essential that El Sistema continues.

When Sir Simon Rattle visited Caracas in 2007, he could hardly believe what he saw: crack addicts, child prostitutes and gang-fighters being given a violin or a clarinet, learning to play Mahler and Mozart and redeeming their lives, by the thousands. Their families changed, too and siblings headed for college. He remembered a little girl chirping, shortly before gunfire sounded in the distance. "Oh, it's much cooler around here to be into Strauss than salsa." And he said he would never forget the feeling of awe in Abreu's presence -- a presence devoid of ego. There was just the charisma of this former politician who spurned politics and turned his populist Catholic faith to liberation and redemption through music.

I pray that Maduro will soon be ousted, and the work of El Sistema will return to what it was at its beginning. The fate of Venezuela depends on it.

Editor’s note from Thomas Lifson:

Recordings of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra under Maestro Dudamel are occasionally featured on Sirius XM’s classical music channel, Symphony Hall (Channel 76). The recordings display musicianship at the level of the world’s leading orchestras that are featured on this channel. There is no allowance to be made for the fact that these are amateur children playing.

About 40 years ago, a most remarkable, inspired, noble-minded (and perhaps a little angelic) Venezuelan gentleman had fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a musician, a prize-winning pianist, and knew the value this entailed.  He wanted to create an opportunity for Venezuelan children, especially of the lower and middle classes, to enjoy the benefits involved in playing instruments and creating music. For him, music and art were no longer to be a monopoly of the elites but is a right for all the people.

He started in a garage with eleven students, and overcoming many setbacks, managed to teach a lot of eager children how to play an instrument and put a little orchestra together.  He created the Simon Bolivar Venezuelan Youth Orchestra. Donors for instruments, music scores and music stands were found, and special teachers were trained, not only to teach how to play an instrument, but also personal integrity, ethical and aesthetical values, the social, emotional and intellectual side of life, a desire for perfection and excellence, and building self-esteem and confidence.

Mother Teresa has said that the most miserable thing about poverty is not lack of bread or roof, it's a feeling of not being anyone, without personal worth. These children in the orchestra were made aware of their worth, the orchestra or choir provided them with a noble identity, they became role models for their parents and impressed everyone they met with their self-confidence and commitment to what they were doing.

They also had to comply with the strict rules: no quarreling, no wasting time, punctuality, results of practicing at home, and other things, and being friendly and helpful to the other musicians.  Those who broke the rules were asked to leave. So, more and more children came, encouraged by their families and their own enthusiasm.

Somebody asked, "But does the Mafia allow this?" That’s because they never allow anything they cannot make money from. The answer was, "Yes, they allow it because their children are participating." The girls in the orchestras are shielded from the danger of prostitution, and the boys are prevented from becoming thugs or gang-members.

A reporter who had heard a new orchestra had been established in a village not far from Caracas went there to have a look. As he stepped off the bus, he saw a little girl standing barefoot in the dust of the road, a little violin tucked under her chin, playing "Twinkle, Twinkle Liitte Star". This is so thrilling, this child will have a bright future. From the moment a child learns to play a musical instrument, she is no longer poor, she becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level. This is enormously praiseworthy.

The name of this wonderful man who created all this opportunity is Jose Antonio Abreu. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was given to Barack Obama instead that year.

Some of these musicians have already achieved fame. One boy, Edicson Ruiz, who played the double bass in the San Augustins Junior Orchestra so proficiently that when Sir Simon Rattle visited Caracas to learn more about Abreu's amazing project, he was so impressed that Ruiz was immediately hired as a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rattle, and off he went to Berlin.

Then we come to a giant, the world-famous conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

Dudamel was born on January 26, 1981 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. He joined an El Sistema orchestra at the age of 10, playing the violin. At the Jacinto Lara Conservatory he studied many subjects under many excellent teachers, including composition. In 1995, he began studying conducting, receiving later refinement from Abreu.

In 1999 he was appointed director of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and toured several countries. In 2002 and 2003 he worked as an assistant to Sir Simon Rattle in Berlin and Salzburg. In 2004 he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Germany. In April 2006 Dudamel was appointed principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, and in November 2006, he made his debut at La Scala, Milan, conducting Don Giovanni. In Sept. 2007 he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival, and in April 2007 he conducted a concert to celebrate the 80th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. In 2017 he was the youngest-ever conductor to lead the Vienna Philharmonic's famous New Year's Day concert, watched by 60 million people in 90 countries.

He has been featured three time on 60 Minutes and interviewed by Christine Amanpour on CNN. He has worked to raise awareness of the importance of music education by appearing at the United Nations and the White House. He served as the 2018/2019 artist in residence at Princeton University and in April 2019 conducted the Princeton University Orchestra and the Princeton University Glee Club in a concert that culminated his year-long residency.

Dudamel was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2009. He is one of the most decorated musicians of his generation -- to name all the prizes, medals and awards he has received would take two pages.

In 2007, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London to great acclaim

(Photo credit: Welland)

But the crowning jewel of his career was his appointment as musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In April 2007, during a guest engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel learned he had been named the next musical director of the LA Phil, beginning with the 2009/2010 season, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen, also a giant in the music world. His contract has been extended every five years and is now valid until 2021/2022.

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 22, 2019 and in his acceptance speech, said it should belong to Venezuela and that "tomorrow is a crucial day (23rd) when the voice of the masses must be heard and respected," referring to the planned national protest against the on-going Venezuelan presidential crisis.

Unfortunately Dr. Abreu, a consummate musician, astute politician, who had secured government funding for El Sistema (one of Madura's showpiece government-run programs) -- died in March 2018 at the age of 78. Since then, Eduardo Mendez, who worked alongside Abreu for 15 years, has taken over the management of El Sistema's 300 schools that connect children with classical music, and according to El Sistema's figures, the 827,000 children and young musicians that once participated in its programs throughout Venezuela.

However, Venezuela’s crippling economic crisis has forced hundreds of musicians to leave the country with their parents. A few of the teachers and some of the members of The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra have left, although these vacancies were soon filled with younger members. The musicians are against the government, and sometimes join in protests, but conflict with El Sistema's benefactor, Pres. Nicolas Maduro and his socialist government, must be avoided by Mendez and the leaders who are dependent on government funding.

Tensions between El Sistema and Venezuelan officials surfaced last year when Dudamel criticized steps by Pres. Maduro that led to the installation of an assembly dominated by government supporters, seen as another step toward dictatorship. A government minister was caught on camera telling El Sistema's employees to toe the party line or find a new job. Maduro asked Dudamel to "not attack those of us who have been crucial to the continuation of your movement." 

Shortly after this heated exchange, two concert tours which were going to be conducted by Dudamel through the United States and Asia were cancelled. No reason was given. So, although Dudamel and the musicians detest Maduro and his government, they are obligated to him for the program’s continued existence. Maduro is using El Sistema as a propaganda tool. It is essential that El Sistema continues.

When Sir Simon Rattle visited Caracas in 2007, he could hardly believe what he saw: crack addicts, child prostitutes and gang-fighters being given a violin or a clarinet, learning to play Mahler and Mozart and redeeming their lives, by the thousands. Their families changed, too and siblings headed for college. He remembered a little girl chirping, shortly before gunfire sounded in the distance. "Oh, it's much cooler around here to be into Strauss than salsa." And he said he would never forget the feeling of awe in Abreu's presence -- a presence devoid of ego. There was just the charisma of this former politician who spurned politics and turned his populist Catholic faith to liberation and redemption through music.

I pray that Maduro will soon be ousted, and the work of El Sistema will return to what it was at its beginning. The fate of Venezuela depends on it.

Editor’s note from Thomas Lifson:

Recordings of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra under Maestro Dudamel are occasionally featured on Sirius XM’s classical music channel, Symphony Hall (Channel 76). The recordings display musicianship at the level of the world’s leading orchestras that are featured on this channel. There is no allowance to be made for the fact that these are amateur children playing.