Deceptive Cadence
2:06 pm
Thu March 1, 2012

Mahler For The People: The L.A. Philharmonic In Caracas

Originally published on Thu March 1, 2012 4:32 pm

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.

Copyright 2013 KUSC-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kusc.org.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally this hour, a trip to Venezuela with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For the first time, its conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, took the orchestra to his native country. In Caracas, they performed Gustav Mahler's "8th Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The music is known as the "Symphony of a Thousand," and Dudamel led a chorus of more than that along with not one but two orchestras - joining the L.A. Philharmonic was the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, where Dudamel is also music director. Brian Lauritzen of member station KUSC traveled with the musicians.

BRIAN LAURITZEN, BYLINE: Bringing his two orchestras together was something Gustavo Dudamel had been looking forward to since he became music director in L.A. in 2009.

GUSTAVO DUDAMEL: It's a dream come true. 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, you know, and to work together.

LAURITZEN: But 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 is incredibly rich. The network of youth orchestras, known as El Sistema or The System, serves nearly 400,000 children each year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Perfect. Yes. Exactly. Now, all of you need to blend with one sound.

LAURITZEN: Members of the L.A. Phil made several visits to El Sistema sites called nucleos to teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

LAURITZEN: Gustavo Dudamel is the most famous product of El Sistema. Since he burst on the scene a few years ago, music educators across the United States have clamored to create programs modeled on the Venezuelan example. One of the first was Youth Orchestra Los Angeles or YOLA. Gretchen Nielsen is the L.A. Phil's director of educational initiatives.

GRETCHEN NIELSEN: 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 time that we're able to spend with children. Here, they spend - what - six to eight hours a day? And for us, we get, at the most, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLASS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LAURITZEN: That time element is something that L.A. Phil principal bassoonist Whitney Crockett says is one of the biggest challenges to successfully replicating El Sistema here in the U.S.

WHITNEY CROCKETT: I don't know that it would be possible. 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. You know, maybe one in a million, it's athletics. But for the just average rank-and-file kid, I've heard that kids wearing El Sistema T-shirts and carrying their instruments, they're bullet proof. They are not messed with in the roughest neighborhoods. What an incredible incentive that would be to get involved.

LAURITZEN: Twenty-six-year-old cellist Marimar Perez 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. Phil 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.

MARIMAR PEREZ: In the Venezuelan society, it's not very easy to say to your family like I want to be a musician. So I was very blessed because my family, my mother and my father is very supportive with my decisions. So I said to my mother, OK, I want to go to Caracas, and I want to be in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. And my mother said, OK, you have my support. You go to Caracas, and you live there and take care of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PEREZ: So more and more, the Venezuelan society is - realize that the musician can be a profession - a real profession and a beautiful profession.

LAURITZEN: And 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. For NPR News, I'm Brian Lauritzen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: