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The Canadian Press
Jose Antonio Abreu of Venezuela wins $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize

TORONTO - Venezuelan economist and musician Jose Antonio Abreu, who has built a "cultural renaissance" in his home country through innovative music programs for young people for three decades, has won the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize.

Abreu, 68, devised "El Sistema," the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras of Venezuela that comprises more than 100,000 young musicians and has had "enormous impacts on how music education is carried out throughout the world," said jury chair and Canadian composer Paul Hoffert.

"The young people who have come through this system . . . have proved the value of music education in general," Hoffert told a news conference Thursday.

"Their grades are better than their fellow students' grades who don't participate in this kind of thing - but more important, the best and most talented of them have become world-class musicians."

Abreu expressed "endless gratitude" for the prize in a statement from Caracas.

"I accept such a great distinction on behalf of all Venezuelan dedicated music teachers," he said. "I want to put emphasis on my ongoing commitment and dedication towards the cause of youth and young adults."

Forty-three international candidates, nominated by the public, were considered for the prize, which is handed out every three years to someone who has made an exceptional contribution to music.

The jury also included Oscar-winning British filmmaker Anthony Minghella, acclaimed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, French pianist Helene Mercier, American composer Peter Schickele and Toronto arts administrator Janice Price.

Jury deliberations were held Wednesday in Toronto. Minghella said it only took a few hours to reach a unanimous decision on Abreu.

"It seemed to me to be an extraordinary idea to award the prize to the one name I didn't know before I started reading these nominees, the one name that probably nobody in Canada will have heard before today," Minghella said in an interview.

"I thought that was a wonderful idea because what it said was, this was a man who devoted his life to an idea, who wasn't promoting himself but promoting a vision of music as a healing, binding, culturally significant revolution in a way - transforming a country, using music to get to the people without privilege, to get to the excluded people of his country, to encourage them to work together, to think together, to aspire towards excellence."

Price praised the scale and success of Abreu's El Sistema, which includes 120 youth orchestras and focuses on children from low-income households. "If I had a wish it would be that we could figure ... how does one replicate his program in other similar environments around the world," she said.

Abreu founded Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Youth Orchestra. His system of music education has inspired similar initiatives in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, said a news release.

Previous winners of the Glenn Gould Prize, named for the famed late Canadian pianist, include Andre Previn, Yo-Yo Ma and Oscar Peterson.

In addition to $50,000, the winner gets to choose a young musician from anywhere in the world to receive a $10,000 protege prize.

Abreu is expected to pick a protege by the spring and accept the award at a gala in Toronto sometime in the fall.

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