The Los Angeles Philharmonic and its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have just returned from a tour in Caracas, Venezuela, where they performed Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony.
The music is known as the "Symphony of a Thousand," and Dudamel led a chorus of more than 1,100 together with two orchestras — the Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The Venezuelan-born Dudamel is the music director of both. As the on-air host for KUSC's L.A. Philharmonic broadcasts, I got to tag along with the orchestra for the event.
Bringing his two orchestras together is something Dudamel says he has wanted since he became music director in L.A. in 2009.
"It's a dream come true," he says. "And it's an honor for me as part of the Bolivars to be here, and for me as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to be there and to work together."
Still, traveling to Venezuela was something of a culture shock for his musicians. They were not allowed to walk on the street alone during the day because of the high crime rate in Caracas. But the culture of music-making in Venezuela remains incredibly rich. The network of youth orchestras, known as El Sistema or "The System," serves nearly 400,000 children each year. And members of the L.A. Philharmonic made several visits to El Sistema sites called nucleos to teach.
El Sistema Up Close
Dudamel is the most famous product of El Sistema. Since he burst onto the scene a few years ago, music educators across the U.S. have clamored to create programs modeled on the Venezuelan example. One of the first was Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA.
"There are specific elements that we try to put into place, but it's more of a belief about how one is trained and for what reasons," says Gretchen Nielsen, the Philharmonic's Director of Educational Initiatives. "And so this idea of creating a social context that's extremely important in building the citizen through music obviously is a core piece of what we're doing with YOLA, and where we started. If you look at, for example, big differences between Venezuela and the U.S., one is the time that we're able to spend with children. [In Venezuela], they spend six to eight hours a day? Here, we get at the most maybe three."
That time element is something that the Philharmonic's principal bassoonist, Whitney Crockett, says ranks among the biggest challenges to successfully replicating El Sistema here in the U.S.
"I don't know that it would be possible," he says. "It's such a focus here [in Venezuela], and I get the sense that in a lot of neighborhoods and barrios it's the avenue to make their lives better. They don't have a lot of choices. I've heard that kids wearing El Sistema T-shirts and carrying their instruments — they're bulletproof. They are not messed with in the roughest neighborhoods. Well, what an incredible incentive that would be to get involved."
Cellist Marimar Perez, 26, has been part of El Sistema since she was just 8. Now, she's a member of the Simon Bolivar Symphony, the top orchestra in El Sistema. Perez performed with Dudamel and the L.A. Philharmonic in Los Angeles and in Caracas. She says her parents are not musicians, but both of her sisters are. Still, she says it was a difficult decision to leave home in Camatagua and join the symphony more than 200 miles away in the Venezuelan capital.
"In Venezuelan society, it's not very easy to say to your family, 'I want to be a musician,' " Perez says. "So I was very blessed because my family, my mother and my father were very supportive with my decisions. More and more, the Venezuelan society realizes that a musician can be a real profession and a beautiful profession."
It's a profession that continues to give Perez the opportunity to perform all over the world. Later this year, the Simon Bolivar Symphony will play at the Summer Olympic Games in London and at Carnegie Hall in New York.