Venezuela's classical music revolution takes Toronto by storm

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The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) of Venezuela has taken Toronto by storm. In a whirlwind of events this week the founder and leading spirit of the orchestra, Jose Antonio Abreu, was in town to accept the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize, whose past recipients have included the likes of Oscar Peterson, Yehudi Menuhin and Pierre Boulez.

The renowned music educator, whose broad based “classless” teaching pedagogy, known as “El Sistema,” relies heavily on recruiting young people from the poor and disadvantaged barrios of Venezuelan society, said he would accept the award on one condition -- if he could bring his entire orchestra with him to Toronto. Well not quite the whole outfit. There are over 200 musicians in the orchestra of which 180 made the trip -- their first performance in Canada. The maestro has donated his entire award to the orchestra and the amount was then tripled by Yamaha Canada translating into $150,000 worth of new musical instruments.

And to top it off, the wunderkind graduate of El Sistema, 28 year-old Gustavo Dudamel (whose debut last month as the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has electrified the classical music world) flew into town to direct the orchestra at the award ceremonies held in the Four Season’s Centre for the Performing Arts.

The following day saw the SBYO perform for 15,000 Ontario high school students at the Rogers Centre. Performing classical standards such as the high-octane finale to the William Tell Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 4, Latin American masterworks and a lovely rendition of Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s score to West Side Story.

Speaking to journalists just before the concert began, Antonio Abreu was asked if his teaching methods had applications here in Canada. “Always it depends on the conditions that apply locally. I would like to think that some of the methods we use in El Sistema have universal application but they have to be augmented and integrated with the local musical education programs and teaching systems that are already in place.”

Maestro Abreu went on to say how overwhelmed he feels by the interest, respect and good wishes he and the orchestra has received from so many Canadians.

A study guide distributed to teachers in advance of the concert noted that the music education program now in place in Venezuela involves some 300,000 members across the country in a system of pre-school orchestras (3-6 years), children’s orchestras (7-16 years), youth orchestras (16-20 years) and professional adult symphony orchestras. The program employs over 15,000 music teachers who work with students, 75 per cent of whom come from families living below the poverty line. El Sistema also offers training in instrument making, arts administration and new media.

At the conclusion of the event at the Roger’s Centre the 15,000 high school students who had watched and listened to the orchestra (conducted by five students not much older than themselves) reacted with a jubilation and hysteria usually reserved for rock stars. As they rushed the front of the stage, orchestra members began taking off their attractive yellow, blue and red jackets (the colors of the Venezuelan flag) and began tossing them into the audience with great gusto.

Young classical superstars setting a new standard that combines artistic excellence with a social conscience.


Robin Breon is an arts journalist and a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association/Association canadienne de critiques de theater.

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