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Orchestra brings best of Venezuela’s youth

by Chiho Iuchi

The miraculous Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela will delight Japanese audiences during their first performances in this country, from Dec. 17 to 19.

The SBYO, based in Caracas and conducted by young Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel, is well known for its highly advanced musical ability. It emerged from what was initially part of a national project targeting crime prevention and personality development.

In 1975, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu (b. 1939), organist, engineer, former government minister and president of the National Cultural Council of Venezuela established what is officially called, in English, the State Foundation of National Youth and Children Orchestra System of Venezuela (FESNOJIV), as a social program to improve the lives of the country’s underprivileged and deter youth from potential criminal behavior.

This national program, today simply called El Sistema, offers free music classes and provides instruments to any child regardless of their economic conditions. FESNOJIV remains an independent body that has enjoyed the support of succeeding governments, unaffected by shifts in political leanings.

During the 33 years since it started, around 400,000 children have gone through El Sistema, staying on average for 10 years. Many of them have continued training to become professional classical musicians. There are about 300,000 active members.

When Abreu launched El Sistema, there were only two orchestras in Venezuela. Now there are 300. Along the way, classical music, once the preserve of the elite, has become a part of everyday life in the poorer sectors of Venezuelan society as well. Although the SBYO is comprised of young members age 15 to 25, their advanced musical level is often described as exceeding that of their professional counterparts. They have performed at top Western classical music festivals such as the Salzburg Festival in Austria and The Proms in London.

Moreover, the SBYO has been producing exceptionally talented professional musicians who are now internationally active. Among them, the 26-year-old conductor Dudamel, who started violin at the age of 10, conducting at 12, and was appointed SBYO’s music director at 18. Having collaborated with top orchestras worldwide, including in Berlin, Vienna, Milan, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Dudamel will become the next music director of the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009.

The SBYO’s performances in Japan are part of their Asian Tour 2008 from Dec. 11 to 20, which will also take them to China and South Korea. The Tokyo concerts are on Dec. 17 and 18, followed by Hiroshima on Dec. 19.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra will perform at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro on Dec. 17 (7 p.m.), and at the Tokyo International Forum Hall A on Dec. 18 (7 p.m.). Ticket prices range from ¥6,000 to ¥14,000. (0570) 06-9960 or kajimotoeplus.com