When conductor Gustavo Dudamel brings the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) to Carnegie Hall as the culmination of a two-week, five-city tour, many of its 200 musicians will have traveled a long way from desperate poverty and crime.
The ensemble is based in Caracas, Venezuela, one of the most violent cities in the Western Hemisphere. Caracas registered 3,218 homicides during the first 10 months of this year, putting it on track to beat last year's toll of 3,488, according to CICPC, the national police agency. Last year, there were 19,336 homicides in Venezuela — an average of 53 murders per day — ranking it higher than neighboring Colombia or even Mexico, which is plagued by a drug war.
At the same time, the SBSOV has dramatically climbed the classical music ranks since its last visit to Carnegie Hall five years ago. It has received awards, a major-label contract, a 60 Minutes profile and millions of views on YouTube. The orchestra has played to a rapturous reception at the BBC Proms and participated in a three-week residency in Los Angeles. Founded in 1975 and previously known as the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, "youth" was dropped from the group's name last year because the players' average age has risen into the 20s.
The SBSOV was for decades the flagship ensemble of El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education system that takes underprivileged children from decaying slums and bullet-scarred shantytowns into a vast network of regional music schools and youth orchestras. The program is the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, an economist and pianist who believes music can help children from impoverished circumstances achieve their full potential and thus promote social change.
The program has taken more than a million children between the ages of 2 and 18, the majority of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons. About 100,000 now participate. (The program has also been adapted internationally as a vehicle for social change, and dozens of El Sistema-inspired programs exist throughout the U.S.)
Among El Sistema's most famous graduates is Dudamel, who entered the program as a 10-year-old violinist and at 31 is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dudamel has not only helped to put a young face on an art form often perceived as graying and elitist, but also continued to champion the cause of El Sistema. "The Bolívar Symphony Orchestra for us is like a family," Dudamel said in a video interview for Carnegie Hall. "It's not like the relation of a regular orchestra and conductor."
While the SBSOV has recorded albums of mainstream repertoire by Beethoven and Mahler, it also advocates for Latin American composers. For this Dec. 10 Carnegie Hall performance, which NPR will webcast live, the orchestra is spotlighting two lesser-known pieces — The Sinfonia India by Mexican composer Carlos Chávez and Cuban composer Julián Orbón's Tres Versiones Sinfónicas — along with La noche de los Mayas by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.
Dudamel has called Revueltas the "Latin American Stravinsky," and for good reason. This 30-minute suite, a portrait of a traditional Mayan tribe, features obsessive ostinato rhythms, wild brass outbursts and a final sacrificial frenzy like that of The Rite of Spring.
Before the concert, there will be a Carnegie performance by the SBSOV's brass ensemble (Dec. 7), a panel discussion with Abreu (Dec. 8), neighborhood concerts and a family concert (Dec. 9).
Dudamel and Abreu are to collect awards at Lincoln Center from Musical America, which has named Dudamel Musician of the Year and Abreu Educator of the Year. "Rarely has a young artist captured the public fancy so completely," editor Sedgwick Clark said of Dudamel on the publication's website. "The timing was simply right."
- Carlos Chávez: Sinfonia India
- Julián Orbón: Tres Versiones Sinfónicas
- Silvestre Revueltas: La noche de los Mayas
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor