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Classical's future shifts to new class

November 10, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A week has passed since Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra set Walt Disney Concert Hall afire. The sight and sound of practically 200 Venezuelan musicians in their teens and early 20s tearing through Beethoven, Bernstein, Mahler and Latin American music with an enthusiastic fervor the likes of which none of us had ever witnessed from a symphony orchestra will not soon be forgotten.

The town is abuzz. Politicians are talking about music education -- for real. I'm getting e-mails headed "Dudamelmania" and "Dudamellitis." Pink's, the hot dog palace, has named a dog after the 26-year-old conductor who will become music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic the season after next.

Meanwhile, the young Venezuelans -- who are the product of a remarkable education program, El Sistema, that puts music in the lives of disadvantaged youths who might otherwise be gang members or worse -- are busy wooing and wowing America. Raves have poured in after concerts in San Francisco and Boston. They will make their New York debut at Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening.

Fortunately, this good news from Latin America comes just as the sensation-hungry media are starting to forgo their endless stories about how classical music is dead.

Venezuela already has more schoolchildren in orchestras than on soccer teams, and the country's president, Hugo Chavez, has vowed to increase El Sistema's enrollment from 250,000 to a million. In China, all parents who can afford to give their children music lessons do so; the country has millions upon millions of piano students who will someday be classical music consumers.

Closer to home, regularly full houses at Disney Hall are an encouraging sign. Classical record sales, unlike those in most other genres, are experiencing a significant uptick. Alex Ross' "The Rest Is Noise," an enthusiastic survey of 20th century music by the New Yorker's music critic, made The Times' bestseller list last Sunday.

In a brilliant 12,000-word polemic in the New Republic, Richard Taruskin brings out the critical howitzers to persuade academics and various boneheaded classical music elitists to lighten up.

Like it or not, he advises, classical music is changing, which means it is alive.

The Venezuelans are a big part of that change, but the revolutionary spirit they bring with them, a visceral approach to the classics that is theirs alone, is not without a threat to the status quo. They have done it on their own. They have not gone to Juilliard, and Juilliard has not sent masses of instructors to them. They have not taken master classes with famous musicians. Their success means that the entire class structure of classical music is now in danger of falling apart.

And that threat may explain why the New York music establishment does not appear amenable to the full Dudamel/Bolivar treatment. Is Carnegie afraid the hottest thing on the music scene will be too scorching hot for its audiences or simply that it won't sell?

For whatever reason, neither the Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" nor Mahler's Fifth is being offered to Manhattan concertgoers. Instead, on Sunday with the Venezuelans, Emanuel Ax will play Chopin's Second Piano Concerto (which is basically a solo piece with some minor orchestral accompaniment). And Simon Rattle, not Dudamel, will conduct the orchestra in Shostakovich's 10th Symphony.

There's more. At the end of November, Dudamel will make his New York Philharmonic debut, and the orchestra is promoting the program as "Gil Shaham plays Dvorak." You have to scroll down the orchestra's website to find Dudamel's name in teeny-tiny type. Maybe the orchestra fears that this young conductor will detract from what it hopes will be the excitement of its own young new music director, Alan Gilbert, who will also begin in 2009.

Classical music has always initially rejected the Other. In the Middle Ages, the church discriminated against secular musicians. Wagner railed against the Jews. Mahler, who was forced to convert to Roman Catholicism to have a career in Vienna, created a furor by being the first composer to include elements of street music in his symphonies. And let's not forget the racism in the West that once greeted Japanese musicians, who were said to play without soul.

The Venezuelans confuse us. They bring something new. But we cannot forget that while these young students are amazing audiences here, their fellow university students back home are demonstrating against Chavez's latest curbs on the Venezuelan constitution.

Is the Bolivar band being used as a propaganda tool by Chavez? And if so, what are we to make of Chavez cozying up to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has banned Western classical music from Iranian radio and TV? If Chavez has some sway in loosening things up in Iran, might that not lead to some good, however distasteful the players?

There are no ready answers to these questions, but they are certainly worth exploring -- and on the highest levels. The breaking down of the class structure of classical music will be messy. But art is messy anyway. And look at the alternative.

A motto of Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded El Sistema 30 years ago, has always been that if you put a violin in a child's hand, he won't pick up a gun. Nov. 3, at a reception after Dudamel and his orchestra rocked Disney, civic leaders spoke about how important this program is for society and how much L.A. needs something like it.

Only a week before, Darius Ever Truly, a talented young actor who was starring in a play at the Odyssey Theatre, was stabbed to death after leaving a party -- possibly by a gang member.

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