Caracas, Venezuela — WAVES of talent from Japan, Korea and China have brought new blood to classical music since the 1980s. A vigorous second wave arrived from Finland and other Scandinavian countries starting in the 1990s. Now, get set for a third wave, from an unexpected source -- Venezuela. It might turn out to be the biggest wave yet given its huge base: around 250,000 youngsters who have received free instruments and music lessons through a one-of-a-kind state-supported music education system.
The most visible surfer of the wave without a doubt is 25-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel, just a few years out of leading youth orchestras in provincial western Venezuela and a much-in-demand conductor in Europe and increasingly in the United States. And he's not alone. Another graduate, double bassist Edicson Ruiz, became the youngest member to enter the Berlin Philharmonic, at 17.
Dudamel's rise has been exponential. World-class conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Esa-Pekka Salonen sing his praises. Deutsche Grammophon, the sine qua non of classical record labels, has signed him to an exclusive contract.
His resume is filling up as almost no 25-year-old before him: He is music director of the Simon Bolivar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. The L.A. Phil gave him his U.S. debut last summer at the Hollywood Bowl, an invitation extended after he won the Gustav Mahler conducting competition in Bamberg, Germany, the previous year. In October, he conducted Mozart's "Don Giovanni" at opera's holiest of shrines, La Scala in Milan, Italy. His 2007 calendar includes dates at the Salzburg Music Festival and with the New York Philharmonic, and he starts the new year with concerts this weekend leading the L.A. Phil in a program of Rachmaninoff, Kodaly and Bartok in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
All this attention might swell anyone's head. But Dudamel still relates to the rather modest stirrings he felt as an 8-year-old.
"I had just gone to a concert with my parents and I identified with the conductor a lot," Dudamel said in Spanish during a recent interview in Caracas. The ebullient, wide-eyed and wiry conductor took a brief break from rehearsals of his orchestra, to which he devotes four months a year.
"I thought, how interesting that the conductor uses an instrument that no one hears. I fell in love with it. I began to conduct in my house, arranging dolls as the orchestra. I'd put on a record and conduct, like theater."
He was soon able to graduate to conducting real musicians, thanks to the music education system created in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a Venezuelan conductor, petroleum economics professor and former congressional deputy. Officially called the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, the program is more popularly known as El Sistema (the System).
Targeting mostly children living in slums, the System gives a musical instrument and instruction to any child in Venezuela who wants it. It began with 11 children and volunteers teaching out of a garage and has grown to nearly half a million children receiving free training at more than 120 centers around the country. By some estimates, the country has more than 200 youth and children's orchestras.
Rattle, the conductor who brought Ruiz to the Berlin, has called it "the most important thing happening in music anywhere in the world."
The idea of the System is to transform the lives of many underprivileged and at-risk youths by providing an alternative to gang life and crime.
"Music changed my life," Dudamel told the British Herald newspaper. "I can look back now and see that many of the boys from my class went on to become involved in drugs and crime. Those who played music did not."
Dudamel was born in Barquisimeto, a city of about 1 million in western Venezuela. He says his talent has to do with his deeply musical family and a supportive environment. His father was a trombonist in the city's orchestra, and his mother taught voice at the local music conservatory. He began violin lessons at the age of 4. (The System starts children as young as 2.)
Although Dudamel showed early promise as a violinist when he entered the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at 11, his teachers, including Jose Luis Jimenez saw that his true talent lay in conducting. After Jimenez formed a town chamber orchestra, he gave a 13-year-old Dudamel the chance to conduct a program of renaissance dances by Peter Warlock and Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."
Ever since, Dudamel's conducting path has seemed preordained. He was named director of the state youth orchestra at 15 and of the national youth orchestra at 17. He was encouraged each step of the way by leading Venezuelan conductors, including Abreu and Rodolfo Saglimbeni.