Friday, January 27, 2006

The Venezuelan Orchestras

On December 2004, Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted the over-two-hundred-piece Venezuela National Youth Symphony, performing Mahler’s Second Symphony. After the dress rehearsal, Rattle told the orchestra: “I don’t think there is anything more important going on in music in the world right now than what is happening in Venezuela. You are lucky, but we are unbelievably lucky and the rest of the world has so much to learn from this, because I think this is the future of music.”

The orchestra that Rattle conducted, is the selection of the finest young musicians in Venezuela, coming from disadvantaged homes in small towns and poor neighborhoods. They are the product of an orchestra system that was founded 30 years ago, and has begun its internationalization, starting in Latin America, but with the strength to spread globally.

After more than five years of involvement with the Guatemalan offshoot of the Venezuelan Orchestra System, in July I decided it was time to visit Caracas and make new contacts, do research, and visit friends and colleagues. Most importantly, I wanted to see with my own eyes the progress of a movement that I have been involved with for a few years in my own country.

Our first contact with the Venezuela Orchestra System was back in 1996, when one of its representatives visited Guatemala City to find and persuade some professional musicians and leaders to start a similar system in Guatemala. The status of symphony orchestra in Guatemala then was not much different from what it was in Venezuela in 1975, when Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu –a conductor, economist, savvy politician, and one of the most charismatic personalities in Latin America– started the Venezuelan orchestra system.

The first members of this youth symphony, later named Orquesta Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolivar (“Simon Bolivar Venezuelan Youth Symphony Orchestra”) never dreamed where they were headed. In 1975, professional symphonies in Venezuela offered limited opportunities for a few talented musicians. Classical music professionals were reluctant to question the traditional music establishment, even though things were not moving forward artistically and economically and audiences were declining.

In Guatemala, even those of us willing to look for new options, had many questions about the Venezuelan system. When we were presented with it for the first time, a common response was that “in Guatemala it couldn’t be done”. Poverty, corruption, low educational levels, and other problems made the Venezuelan system look utopian. But those, problems didn’t faze the Venezuelans.

A year later, 9 musicians of the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela led by Maestro Ulyses Ascanio, proved that things could get done in Guatemala. Beginning from scratch, and despite of the disapproval of the conservative music professors, and some accusations of child exploitation, the brand new Guatemalan Youth Symphony, later re-named Jesús Castillo Symphony Orchestra, debuted successfully. After ten days of 12 hour-a-day rehearsals the orchestra performed repertoire that the members never dreamt of playing. A decade later, they remember it as one of the happiest and most fulfilling experiences of their lives. Lesson learned: It can be done in Guatemala. Actually, it can be done anywhere. This is what the Venezuelans have been doing for the past 30 years in their country and in several others in Latin America and the Caribbean.

30 years and counting
In 1975, Abreu invited a group of 11 students to start a new Youth Symphony. During the first rehearsal, Abreu offered the students a tour to Mexico. The eleven attendees were enthusiastic, but skeptical. A few months later, and despite strong criticism for its unorthodox practices, a full youth symphony orchestra was ready to make the trip.

A year later, the same orchestra participated in a youth symphony festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, conducted by Carlos Chávez, who traveled from Mexico exclusively to prepare them. The quick success of the orchestra and the improvement of its members motivated them to believe Dr. Abreu’s vision, even if it still seemed utopian. Hard work in the face of ongoing criticism made them adopt the phrase “to play and to struggle” as their motto. Some of these students would travel regularly for long hours by bus to their hometowns, where they started small orchestras just like the one they just founded in Caracas. Some of them remember this as a precarious time. These new orchestras were far from a professional level, but they were causing a deep impact in their towns. As Abreu has said “the orchestras turned into the souls of the communities.”

A new system was born. The “State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela” (FESNOJIV) was created in 1979 as its organizational base. It has survived the severe political, economic and social changes in Venezuela over the last 30 years with full support of both the government and the private sector. The system has grown exponentially. By 2005, it included 210 orchestral ensembles serving about 240,000 students.

For over 10 years they have looked beyond Venezuelan boundaries. Missions like the one in Guatemala have been sent to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Trinidad and other islands of the Caribbean. Joint programs like the Symphony of the Americas, the Latin America Youth Symphony, the Mercosur Youth Symphony and the Youth Symphony of the Andes, are replicas of the model used in Venezuela.

Between 1998 and 2002, the Venezuela Children’s Orchestra toured Europe several times with gigantic success. In 2002 Germany and Venezuela initiated an orchestral exchange program, which includes periodic seminars by German professors in Venezuela. In 2004, Edicson Ruíz, a 17-year-old bassist from the orchestra system in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Caracas won a double-bass audition at the Berlin Philharmonic, becoming the youngest musician in its history.

The principles of the Venezuelan System
When they speak of their system, Venezuelans are talking about a broad network of musicians, educators and administrators, as well as music education centers and symphony orchestras –children’s, youth and professional. It includes centers for instrument construction and maintenance and for filming and archiving the main concerts, seminars and master classes. This network functions under the same organizational culture, philosophy and principles, dictated by FESNOJIV, guided by its founder, Dr. Abreu, who devotes close and constant attention to the development of each activity.

The system can be viewed from two perspectives: the purely artistic and the social. Artistically, according to Ascanio, “the principle is to turn the musical practice into a collective experience. The orchestra becomes a classroom and a music laboratory in which students find the reason to practice. The interaction with their peers gives them a stronger motivation to practice and study.” In Venezuela, this approach was revolutionary and had a lot of opposition when it started. “Traditionally, music practice was ruled by a system of conservatories which produced a small number of musicians. There was a lack of the less popular instruments. Most students chose violin and piano while other instruments were ignored. The orchestra functioned around the music schools as a supplementary course since students were being prepared for solo careers.” After finishing their academic preparation, musicians would find themselves jobless, frustrated, and faced with having to start new careers.

The system doesn’t expect to graduate thousands of professional musicians. It only expects to make better citizens who happen to play in remarkably good orchestras. In an interview in Chefi Borzacchini’s recently published book Venezuela Sembrada de Orquestas (“Venezuela Seeded with Orchestras”) Igor Lanz, FESNOJIV’s executive director stated, “You cannot speak of desertion in this system. What is important about it is that whoever enters can have multiple choices, from the professional and musical per se, to any other possible choice.” Students not only become remarkable musicians, but also are offered a broader perspective of life and careers opportunities.

This, along with the large number of students served, turns the orchestra system into a significant social force. The system often presents itself as a movement of social action through music. It concentrates on disadvantaged youth and children from troubled or lower income backgrounds. For them, playing in an orchestra with high artistic goals offers more benefits than the hope of becoming a classical music superstar. In the T.V. documentary “Resurrección en Movimiento” (Resurrection in Motion), produced by Venezuela’s Vale TV, Dr. Abreu talks about an economic principle called “the vicious cycle of poverty”: “A country is poor because it is poor, a man is poor because he is poor, and since he is poor he cannot get prepared, he cannot access education, and therefore he remains poor. The orchestra breaks through this cycle of material poverty,” he continues. “By being part of an orchestra, a child that is materially poor, becomes spiritually rich, so he begins to aspire and struggles to be better, and generates an energy that his material poverty doesn’t provide”.

Ascanio explained how he compares playing in an orchestra to living in society: “In the orchestra there are ranks, hierarchies, obligations, rights, discipline, incentives, healthy competition, and each has an important role for the whole, just like living in a family: you enjoy certain liberties but have to respect certain limits.”

The students carry all those values into their households and communities. With an average of 5 members per family, the orchestra system currently reaches over a million Venezuelans. It truly plays an important role in the improvement of society; it is a real community outreach. It is worth noting that FESNOJIV is part of the Ministry of Health and Social Development, which provides most of its working budget.

Organizational Structure and Teaching Methods
FESNOJIV’s system is organized through a network of music centers, which are mostly located in poor neighborhoods and towns, called núcleos –96 of them around the country. Each núcleo has at least one orchestra and offers free permanent music lessons, using borrowed or donated instruments. The main teaching method is the intensive seminar, like the one brought to Guatemala. Such seminars are organized constantly. Sometimes they specialize in a specific orchestral repertoire, and sometimes in a specific instrument or section to focus on technique and performance. Intensive seminars offer a chance for larger interaction among established ensembles all over the country. These seminars are frequently taught and led by top musicians from Venezuela, Europe and the U.S. Recently, and after FESNOJIV established a close relationship with the Berlin Philharmonic, many of their musicians led seminars specializing in each instrument of the orchestra.

An important strength of the system is the speed at which students assimilate new skills and face new and difficult repertoire. This is in part because of their teaching method: when a child learns a skill, he or she has to learn it so well that it can immediately be taught to another student. It is common to find students who are only a few years younger than the teacher and have only a few years less experience. This method, combined with constant participation in seminars and festivals, ensures that the students’ progress is not only fast and effective, but also highly competitive and constantly evaluated.

The clearest proof of this progress was the 1998 National Children’s Orchestra –a selection of the best young musicians in the country. Soon after growing in age to become the National Youth orchestra, they grew in quality to become a professional-level orchestra. Today, their members, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, have been following the course of the Simón Bolivar Symphony founding members. The same people who reached international recognition by “playing and struggling” couldn’t just ignore the quality and needs of their pupils. But the Simón Bolivar Orchestra, the top professional ensemble in the system, could neither absorb a whole new orchestra, nor reject such a talented group of young musicians. The solution was to establish a temporary “second” Simón Bolivar Symphony. The original founders’ orchestra is known as Simón Bolivar “A”. The youth orchestra is Simón Bolivar “B”.

Many of their musicians teach individuals and groups, lead seminars, conduct orchestras and other ensembles, and even play a multiple roles as musician/administrator/music entrepreneurs in Caracas or elsewhere. During my visit to Caracas, Simón Bolivar “A” was playing its regular season, while the brass section of Simon Bolivar “B” was on tour in South America, and the rest joined the Youth Symphony of the Americas as guests during its performances in Caracas.

One morning, I had the chance to visit the Núcleo Montalbán, in the outskirts of Caracas. On this day, at the start of the school vacation, Montalbán was the base for a Caracas Youth Symphony’s seminar to prepare a new repertoire for its upcoming national tour conducted by Ulyses Ascanio. The tour repertoire included Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Usually, this núcleo is the headquarters for the early childhood music education program (Sistema de Orquestas pre-Infantiles de Venezuela).

At Montalbán, the program’s director Susan Simán, explained the system that she has designed and implemented as a prototype that has been followed in seven other regions, and was recently introduced in other countries. The Children’s program consists of five levels, starting at 2 years old, with a preparatory course, using a combination of the traditional music education methods (Orff, Kodaly, Dalcrosse, etc.), all focused on orchestra performance, including the basic skills, values and discipline needed to work in an ensemble. At this level, students use their voice, simple percussion instruments and recorder flutes. Since children are so young, parents have to participate and play in a “parallel” ensemble, but are only expected to play the same as their children.

In the subsequent levels, children progress to play their chosen orchestral instruments, until they reach the highest level in the program: the children’s orchestra. After reaching this level, students can continue with private lessons and participate in seminars. The repertoire throughout the program consists of sets of works that run from simple orchestral pieces and arrangements to advanced repertoire like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and Revueltas’ Sensemayá. These sets of works are used as standards nationally, and have been chosen to focus on specific skills that will speed the learning process.

At the concert of the Youth Symphony of the Americas, I was able to put faces and voices to familiar names. Gustavo Dudamel, 23 years old and a product of the orchestra system, was about to conduct that afternoon. In the lobby of the Teresa Carreño Theater, long lines of adults, adolescents and children were waiting to get in the hall, and more were desperately looking for spare tickets. At the concert I was almost deafened by the cheers and high-pitched applause of a group of children sitting behind me, excited to see Dudamel conducting Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. At the intermission I went to meet them. They were the members of the Fundación del Niño Children’s Orchestra from Miranda, an orchestra that plays one or two concerts each month with new repertoire. Two of their members –Erick Gutierrez, percussion, 13, and Francis Gagliardi, French horn, 11, explained their excitement at coming to Caracas and attending the Teresa Carreño Theater for the second time. One of their most memorable experiences, they told me, was being part of a massive orchestra that played for Claudio Abbado last year.

Audience development and ticket marketing are exotic concepts in Venezuela. At the moment, no one measures audience demographics. Concert tickets range from free to around US$ 4.50 and according to FESNOJIV’s own accounts, audience attendance remains between 90 to 100% for all concerts presented by the system’s orchestras. For other data, I had to rely on my own empiric calculation by observing a couple of concerts I attended. I estimated the average age to be around 25, and ranging from 10 to 70. In fact, at FESNOJIV they are aware that the majority of their audience consists of people involved as students and musicians in the system. This is an audience that, even if young, can truly appreciate a concert from many perspectives and have a critical opinion about it.

Could the United States deal with it?
When we started in Guatemala, people would ask “if you want help to young people through music, why classical, and not the folk music that is part of some minorities’ cultures, or popular music which youth already appreciates?” The answer is in the universality of classical music. The advantage of the system is that it promotes exchange and cooperation that ripples through race, class and culture. A Venezuelan orchestra can play Copland, and it will sound like Copland, and a Japanese orchestra can play Ginastera and it will sound like Ginastera. No other genre is as universal as classical music, and no other format in classical music is as complete as a symphony orchestra.

The system reconciles the notions of art as a simplistic “social cure” with little artistic value, and classical music presented by self-absorbed, self-serving institutions accused of being elitist. Venezuelans have proven that a good orchestra can really improve society, and that at-risk youth can make outstanding classical musicians.

If “the future of classical music” –as Sir Simon Rattle calls it–, is already alive in Venezuela wouldn’t it be appropriate to consider the benefits to the situation of classical music in the United States? There are already signs of serious interest. The New England Conservatory of Music has initiated a close relationship with FESNOJIV, and according the Conservatory’s Dean, Mark Churchill, a primary goal is to make Americans aware of what is happening in Venezuela.

Recently, I did a school project in Bridgeport, Connecticut where the Center for Arts and Humanity struggles to maintain a children’s string orchestra. When I first visited, my first thought was that Venezuelans could do wonders for this community. It is a community hit by poverty, corruption and unemployment, in one of the wealthiest states in the country. For me, it wouldn’t be hard to picture the creation of a Bridgeport children’s, or youth symphony orchestra in just a few years using the Venezuelan system.

In fact, Venezuelans have done that in many other countries using the seminar approach. The first seminars in other Latin American countries have been often called “miracles”. According to Ascanio “100% of the seminars we have conducted abroad have been considered successful.” The Venezuelans provide the rough tools, which have to be polished by local leaders. “The success of these programs depends a lot on leadership,” says Ascanio.

Venezuela got a strong start under the leadership of Dr. Abreu. But the system has grown so much that it is securely in the country’s culture. It cannot be stopped. The United States is overflowing with charismatic leaders who should be willing to take a chance. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to present Americans with the classical music’s miracle that is happening in Bridgeport, Connecticut?

© 2006, by Alvaro F. Rodas

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