Conductor of the people
The New York Times
October 28, 2007
By ARTHUR LUBOW
In 2004, Gustavo Dudamel, who was then virtually unknown outside his native Venezuela, entered the first Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition, for conductors under 35. One of the jurors in Bamberg, Germany, was Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I arrived a bit later than the rest of the jury, and by the semifinals, there was already a lot of buzz about him,” Salonen said. At 23, Dudamel was not only an unusually young contestant; this session with the Bamberg Symphony marked his first time conducting a professional orchestra. He seemed unfazed. “You are young and inexperienced, but you should somehow create an aura of confidence and authority,” Salonen explained to me recently. “Gustavo is not concerned about authority. He is concerned about music, which is exactly the right approach. The orchestra gets seduced into playing well for him, rather than forced.” After the prize was awarded to Dudamel, Salonen telephoned Deborah Borda, president of the L.A. Philharmonic. “He says, ‘Deborah, you won’t believe this kid from Venezuela who won the competition,’ ” Borda recounted to me. “I said, ‘What’s he like?’ He said: ‘He’s a conducting animal. Let’s get him in for a bowl concert right away.’ ”
Dudamel didn’t even have a manager. First he found one, then Borda booked him for a philharmonic outdoor summer concert in the Hollywood Bowl. “When he came, we were getting toward the end of the bowl season, it’s 110 degrees, the orchestra was getting ready for vacation — and it was electric,” Borda recalled. She immediately signed him up for a regular subscription date in Disney Hall and, in the meantime, embarked on what she calls “a two-year odyssey” to watch him work with orchestras throughout Europe. For Borda, who was scouting candidates to succeed Salonen someday, the turning point arrived while she was watching Dudamel rehearse the La Scala orchestra in Milan in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (as it happens, the piece he performed in the Bamberg competition). “That is a great opera orchestra, but you don’t think of them as a great Mahler band,” Borda says of La Scala. “When they started playing, it sounded like Verdi. By the end, it sounded like Vienna, with the klezmer, Jewish, real Mahlerian weighty sound. This was heavy lifting, a real crucible for a young conductor.” The only remaining question in her mind was to see how he fared at Disney Hall in his debut there last January. After a rapturous response from the players and audience members, she offered Dudamel a five-year contract as music director, starting in the 2009-10 season.
There was a sense that she had snaffled the Man o’ War or Secretariat of the classical-music racetrack. Dudamel, now 26, is the most-talked-about young musician in the world. Sir Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called him “the most astonishingly gifted conductor I have ever come across.” At a time when recording companies are cutting back on orchestral releases, Dudamel has received a coveted contract with Deutsche Grammophon and has released two CDs of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies. Already a frequent presence in European halls, he will begin his most extended appearance in the United States next month, performing in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston — and, for the first time, in New York, with the New York Philharmonic and, at Carnegie Hall, with his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
Is there a risk in committing an orchestra to a leader who is still relatively unproved? At this stage of his career, Dudamel has a limited repertory, focused on the familiar Central Europeans (Beethoven, Mahler) and the underperformed Latin Americans (Arturo Márquez, José Pablo Moncayo, Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez). Also untested is his capacity for the administrative and public relations tasks that American orchestras require of their music directors. But the L.A. Philharmonic has a history of hiring dynamic young music directors (Salonen was 34 when he began there, and Zubin Mehta was only 26), so you could say that taking risks is part of its tradition. A Latin American conductor in Los Angeles County, where roughly half the population is Hispanic, also makes sense. “It’s exciting for people here,” Borda says.
In selecting Dudamel, the L.A. Philharmonic is also allying itself with a uniquely successful education initiative, of which its new music director is the most illustrious product; this week the philharmonic will announce plans to inaugurate a program, “Youth Orchestra L.A.,” that is directly modeled on a Venezuelan prototype. Youth Orchestra L.A. will begin with youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 in a disadvantaged district in central Los Angeles, but its ultimate goal is much grander: to provide a musical instrument and a place in a youth orchestra for every young person in Los Angeles County who wants one. Borda says that she was inspired by her visit late last year to Caracas. In vivid contrast to the situation in the United States, where arts-education programs have been snipped from school curricula as unaffordable frippery, the Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country. And the results have been astonishing. I asked Borda if she was surprised by anything she had seen during her Venezuelan visit. “I didn’t imagine I would be in tears as much as I was,” she told me.
A decade ago, in a gymnasium in Barquisimeto in western Venezuela, Dudamel, then 17, stood on a podium with a baton in his hand, facing an orchestra and chorus of about 800. Conducting a musical ensemble of that size is like commanding a regiment. For the teenage novice, the challenge was heightened by the conspicuous and audible presence of his mentor, José Antonio Abreu, who was seated front-row center and calling out suggestions. “Woodwinds up!” Abreu urged his protégé. “Tell the strings more bow!” The conductor sailed ahead confidently. “I think that was the test,” Dudamel told me. If his unflappability was the quality being sized up, the young man triumphed. His musical instincts were equally impressive. On the five-hour car trip back to Caracas, Abreu telephoned home to tell his sister, “I think we have found the new conductor for the Children’s Orchestra.”
Dudamel’s rocket-fast rise can’t be grasped without an understanding of the music-education system that launched him. With an enrollment of 250,000 students, most of them from humble backgrounds, the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela — known popularly as el sistema — is the lifetime work of the visionary and tireless Abreu, who in 32 years has navigated the program through 10 different administrations of this politically turbulent country, flourishing under the conservative presidents of the 80s and the defiantly leftist Hugo Chávez today. Combining political shrewdness with religious devotion, the stooped, ascetic Abreu, who is 68, seems to have stepped out of a novel by Stendhal or Greene (if you overlook the ever-present cellphone). His friends invariably compare him to a priest. Unencumbered by family obligations or material possessions, he has dedicated himself to a utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all. Sometimes Abreu emphasizes the spiritual enrichment that music brings to the individual; at other times, he points to evidence that students who go through the sistema become more productive and responsible members of society.
The most remarkable feature of the Venezuelan music-education system is its instant immersion: the children begin playing in ensembles from the moment they pick up their instruments. Their instructors say the students are learning to behave as much as they are discovering how to make music. “In an orchestra, everybody respects meritocracy, everybody respects tempo, everybody knows he has to support everyone else, whether he is a soloist or not,” explains Igor Lanz, the executive director of the private foundation that administers the government-financed sistema. “They learn that the most important thing is to work together in one common aim.” Across Venezuela the sistema has established 246 centers, known as nucleos, which admit children between 2 and 18, assign them instruments and organize them into groups with instructors. Typically practicing for two or three hours every day, the children are performing recognizable music virtually from the outset.
Not long ago I visited a few nucleos, including one in a concrete-block building in the Los Chorros district of Caracas that was constructed in the mid-60s as a detention center for juvenile delinquents. It now houses youngsters who have been taken from the streets or from violent or crime-ridden homes into the protective custody of the state. Only 57 kids were residents of the shelter, but 300 more who lived in the neighborhood came there for daily music instruction. I watched several orchestral groups perform, including a string ensemble of 7- and 8-year-olds sawing away at Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the first violinists scratchily bowing and the second violinists fingering pizzicato notes. The harsh overhead fluorescent lights, the white and ocher paint peeling off the concrete walls and the bars on some windows (dating from the building’s origins) might have cast a gloomy air over the proceedings. Instead, the pleasure and pride that the children took in their collective effort was infectious. “It was a shot in the arm,” Matias Tarnopolsky, the artistic director of the New York Philharmonic, told me of his own tour of the sistema in Caracas. “It reminded me of the reasons I went into the music world as a profession.” Rattle has called the sistema “the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world.”
Like a far-reaching catchment network that comprises 1,800 teachers and some 600 orchestras, the sistema pulls in youngsters who, depending on talent and ambition, advance to statewide orchestras, with the younger ones in children’s orchestras and those in their late teens and 20s in youth orchestras. The best are funneled into the national Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One of them, Edicson Ruiz, a double bassist, at 19 became the youngest musician admitted to the modern-day Berlin Philharmonic.) Directed by Dudamel since 1999, the Bolívar Youth Orchestra enjoys a worldwide reputation for a sound that is not only passionate — to be expected with youth orchestras — but also surprisingly polished and balanced.
Dudamel, who began playing as an orchestra violinist in Caracas at age 12, has known some of the players for half his life, and he conducts them with the intimate assurance of someone who grew up with them. “The relationship between the orchestra and me is so easy that sometimes in rehearsal I don’t have to tell them anything — they are waiting for my hands and my movements,” he says. During a rehearsal he can good-naturedly chide, “No, muchachos,” wagging his forefinger and shaking his head, in a way that probably wouldn’t work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “We used to believe that a conductor is an old, introverted guy,” says Rafael Payares, who plays French horn in the orchestra and is one of Dudamel’s closest friends. “But this is the same Gustavo you used to see playing the violin or throwing parties. He’s still the same — crazy.” Dudamel is diminutive in stature and warm but unshowy in conversation; when the music begins, however, with his thick curly hair bouncing as he leaps passionately on the podium, an electrifying avatar materializes.
Abreu and Dudamel are the two most identifiable figures of the sistema, and Abreu’s mentoring of Dudamel has taken on the appearance of fathering. “When I met Gustavo, I thought he was the son of José Antonio — the way he walks, the way he talks, even the way he writes,” Dudamel’s wife, Eloísa Maturén de Dudamel, a journalist and former dancer, told me. At the all-night parties following Caracas concerts of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, typically held in the home where Abreu lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Dudamel will always peel off to speak with the maestro. “I know when they sit down and start talking, it can last forever,” EloÃsa says. “It can start with one bar of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, and it can go to the universe. José Antonio arrives very late at these parties. When he arrives, he always kidnaps Gustavo. And when that happens, we know Gustavo is finished with us for the night.” Some people wonder if Dudamel will curtail his international commitments one day so he can assume the role of Abreu’s successor. “Gustavo is much more than a successor,” Abreu told me, laughing, when I posed the question. “He is a universal glory of Latin America. He is a flag, a standard.”
The sistema is a kind of religion, and among its initiates, I grew accustomed to hearing Abreu described in Godlike terms (all-seeing, all-knowing, never-resting) and Dudamel celebrated as his charismatic, filial prophet. Attending concerts of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Caracas these days, Abreu can still be found seated front and center, but he no longer feels the need to issue instructions. At a performance last summer of Beethoven’s Third “Eroica” Symphony and Bartok’s thorny First Piano Concerto, Dudamel radiated eager boyishness and delight as he indicated the emphatic successive downbeats in the “Eroica.” He grinned whenever the musicians played a phrase to his liking, and his eyes twinkled and his fingers plucked the air, as if wheedling the sound he wanted from individual sections of the orchestra. His face and body expressed torment, elation or despair, to elicit the mood he was after, while the stick in his right hand and the undulations of his left relayed the entrances and rhythms to the players. In his ringside seat, the old maestro, in rapt absorption, beamed and nodded approvingly. “Every time I see in Abreu’s face the joy of watching how Gustavo can make music that is not written,” Frank Di Polo, a violist who is married to Abreu’s sister, told me. “I think Abreu is not only proud. It is his son now.”
Dudamel was raised in Barquisimeto, a city that prides itself on a rich tradition of popular music. His father, Oscar, played the trombone professionally, mainly with salsa bands, so Gustavo attended concerts before he was old enough to speak. The family lived with Oscar’s parents until Gustavo was 12, when Oscar landed an office job in a nearby city and the parents relocated. Gustavo chose to stay behind with his grandparents. (Both his parents now work for the sistema.) Gustavo’s grandfather, who was a truck driver, died five years ago, but I visited his grandmother, Engracia de Dudamel, in the modern apartment in Barquisimeto that Gustavo bought for her in 2005.
At an early age, Engracia de Dudamel told me, Gustavo was concentrating on music. By 5, he was studying music in the sistema in the afternoons. When he came home from school at lunchtime, he would arrange his Fisher-Price toy figures as if they were an orchestra, making a little box for the conductor, and put a record on the phonograph; he would ask her not to break up the orchestra while he was in music class so that he could resume directing the musicians on his return. One time his grandmother took him to see his father perform in a classical concert in Barquisimeto. “He was very small, I thought he was going to fall asleep,” she told me. “And he was completely attentive to details of the instruments. He said, ‘Grandmother, I like this music.’ ” When I repeated this story to Dudamel, he told me what the program had been.
Although the boy wanted to learn to play the trombone like his father, his arms were still too short. Instead, he took up the violin. “From the very beginning he showed signs of great talent and learned everything very easily,” says Luis Giménez, the principal administrator of the sistema in the state of Lara, of which Barquismeto is the capital. When Gustavo was accepted by a renowned violin instructor in Caracas, his grandparents proudly shepherded him to weekly lessons, departing at 3 a.m. on Fridays to get him there.
Exceptional as were both his talent and family support, Dudamel also benefited immeasurably from the institutional framework in place for him to climb. “It is a brilliant result of the sistema,” Abreu says. In the Lara children’s orchestra, Dudamel was soon appointed concertmaster; and when Giménez formed the Amadeus Youth Orchestra to explore Baroque string music, Dudamel served as concertmaster there too. One afternoon, Giménez arrived late to a scheduled rehearsal of the Amadeus Youth Orchestra in the school cafeteria and discovered that the musicians had started playing without him, under the baton of Dudamel, who was then 12 or 13. “He was great, he was like a regular conductor,” Giménez says. He appointed Dudamel to be assistant conductor, which meant in practice that the boy was doing much of the conducting for both the Amadeus string ensemble and the Lara children’s orchestra.
Abreu, who monitors in-house talent as closely as a studio mogul of the Hollywood golden age, encouraged Dudamel to take conducting classes along with his regular violin lessons in Caracas. So when he saw Dudamel conduct the oversize orchestra in Barquisimeto for the annual May concert in 1998, he wasn’t totally surprised by the boy’s prowess. After the concert, he went to speak to Dudamel’s grandparents and said, “I have to take him to Caracas.” They were shocked, but they could not refuse. “We cried a lot,” Engracia recalls. “And my husband told Dr. Abreu, ‘You are taking the light out of this house.’ ” But Dudamel’s talent shone more brightly in the big city. He honed his conducting skills rapidly; indeed, his last decade has whirred forward like a sped-up film. In 1998, when Dudamel was 17, Abreu gave him less than two months’ notice that he would be conducting the national children’s orchestra in Mahler’s First Symphony on a tour of Italy. Abreu coached him personally. At one session, held on the move in typical Abreu fashion, he handed Dudamel the partiture — the full conductor’s score — and told him to mark up the first movement. Then the maestro went off to Mass. “I looked at it and kept writing, ‘This is important, this is important,’ ” Dudamel recalls. “You couldn’t read the score, I wrote so much. He came back and said, ‘O.K., conduct.’ I went to take what I had written and he said, ‘You don’t need the partiture.’ When I started, he said: ‘Where is the entrance? Sing the second melody. Sing it in reverse.’ ” It was sink or swim. During the orchestra’s tour, Dudamel met the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli in Sicily. He became the first of Dudamel’s foreign mentors, to be followed by Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle, who have all encouraged and coached him.
Over the last three years, Esa-Pekka Salonen has seen Dudamel develop as his opportunities have exponentially increased. Most notably, a year ago, he signed on to eight weeks annually as principal guest conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony in Sweden. “He has had a few years of very professional conducting around the world, and obviously he is a very different kind of guy,” Salonen told me. “What hasn’t disappeared is the sense of wonder and awe and discovery. These are wonderful qualities in all human beings, but especially in a conductor.”
Musicians grasp to put into words what makes it so exciting to play for him. “When he’s conducting the piece, you’re feeling like it’s just been composed, it’s like he’s creating it himself,” says the L.A. Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist, Michele Zukofsky. “He throws away the past. You’re not bogged down by what’s supposed to be. It’s like jazz, in a way.” In a rehearsal for Dudamel’s debut at Disney Hall, Zukofsky performed an extended solo that is featured in Zoltan Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta.” “I played an ascending run very softly, pianissimo,” she recounted. “He said, ‘Oh, I love this.’ ” It is a passage that she normally plays mezzoforte, or moderately loud. “Even though it was a mistake, he enjoyed the difference,” she says. He had her do it that way at each of the concerts.
Just as down to earth as Dudamel’s talent is the social transformation that was needed to nurture it. In 1975, when Abreu began what was then called the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the nation had only two orchestras, the Venezuela Symphony and the recently founded Maracaibo Symphony. Both were staffed mainly by European émigrés. Initially, the chief appeal of the Youth Orchestra was the professional opportunity it provided for young Venezuelan classical musicians. Abreu had a greater goal, however — to create many orchestras, which would embrace a segment of the population that was thought to be incapable of appreciating the art form. “For me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people,” he says. “As a musician, I had the ambition to see a poor child play Mozart. Why not? Why concentrate in one class the privilege of playing Mozart and Beethoven? The high musical culture of the world has to be a common culture, part of the education of everyone.”
Abreu combines a deep knowledge of music (he studied composition and conducting and performed on keyboard instruments in churches and concert halls) and economics (he taught the subject at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas and served a term in the Venezuelan National Assembly). So he was unusually well equipped to found an orchestra system. He works without rest, despite a frail constitution that was further weakened by serious abdominal surgery for ulcers in 1973. Ever since, he has been forbidden alcohol and restricted to a low-fat, nondairy diet of small meals. An onset of diabetes later deprived him of chocolate, his one indulgence. Today he is a gaunt, bony figure, swaddled in woolen clothing even in the Venezuelan heat, his bright eyes and smile blazing beneath a big domed forehead.
The Venezuelan government began fully financing Abreu’s orchestra after it succeeded brilliantly at an international competition in 1977 in Aberdeen, Scotland. From the beginning, the sistema fell under the dominion of social-services ministries, not the ministry of culture. Strategically, this positioning has helped it to survive, since Venezuelan presidents feel varying degrees of commitment to the arts and, when possible, prefer to reject anything associated with the previous regime. The current Chávez administration, best known in this country for its populist, vehemently anti-American tone, has been the most generous patron of the sistema so far, footing almost all of its $29 million annual operating budget and ponying up for additional capital projects. When I talked to leaders of the sistema, I thought I detected a special emphasis on the socially progressive aspects of the program that would gratify the Medici of the masses. But that social-welfare element is central to Abreu’s philosophy, and if the theme is being underscored now — well, such choices are a musician’s prerogative.
In politically polarized Venezuela, a government-supported institution walks a tightrope. For the sistema, the delicacy of the footwork became unpleasantly public earlier this year. The minister of communications asked the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, with Dudamel conducting, to play the national anthem in late May, at the moment that Radio Caracas Television, an outspokenly anti-Chávez broadcasting network, went off the air for the last time. The performance would be the first programming on the new, Chávez-compliant station that replaced RCTV, which had lost its license. Under longtime law, the national anthem is heard whenever a TV station begins or ends its regular day of broadcasting in Venezuela. Officially, the government was requesting a newly performed, complete version of the anthem with an orchestral introduction. In context, though, it would appear that the nation’s acclaimed young conductor and orchestra were endorsing the Chávez administration’s refusal to renew the RCTV license, a decision that bitterly divided the nation.
Pleading technical impediments, the orchestra’s leaders begged off a live appearance and instead provided a videotape. But because the anthem on television is typically accompanied by a photomontage of picturesque Venezuelan scenes, many viewers who watched the tape on TV thought Dudamel and the orchestra were indeed performing live. In the press and on blogs, some of Chávez’s critics — who tend to be the people who buy concert tickets — expressed outrage and dismay. Looking back, the orchestra’s leaders say they had no choice but to provide the tape. “How could you say no?” explains Lanz, the foundation’s executive director. “What will be your next answer? The organization depends on the state, and they are asking for something that is absolutely normal.” He allows, however, that “for some people it was shocking.” The next day, he went to the manager of the new station to say that “many people are using this as a political cause and it is causing damage, not to us but to the kids,” and to request that in the future, the audio be used without the images of the orchestra and Dudamel. “They did it immediately, which I am thankful for,” he says. “Having your anthem being used politically is terrible.” Some people told me that Dudamel was upset by the controversy, but to me he would speak only in generalities about the current world situation. “We are in a point of intolerance,” he said. “The national anthem is the glory of the country. It is for all Venezuelans.” Abreu, a little disingenuously, told me: “We have recorded the national anthem dozens of times. We were never told the particular use of a particular recording. When we deliver a video, it is for all. It is the national anthem. It is not our fault.” When I said that it was a question of context, he repeated, with a pained expression, “It is not our fault.”
Not to say that political posturing is demanded solely by the government. The recording of the anthem was made in the sistema’s new Center for Social Action Through Music, an 11-story, $25 million building on the edge of downtown Caracas that officially opened at the end of July. I had assumed that its cumbersome name constituted another blandishment for the Chavistas, but I was wrong. It was a sop to the Inter-American Development Bank, which helped underwrite it with a $5 million loan and is now advancing $150 million for the construction of seven other regional centers of the sistema throughout Venezuela. Development banks prefer to lend money for infrastructure: sewers, roads, water-treatment plants. Within the I.D.B., many bankers objected to a loan for such a frivolous-seeming project. “One of my colleagues joked, ‘Are you going to finance the poor kids to carry the instruments of the rich kids?’ ” says Luis Carlos Antola, a representative of the bank in Venezuela. “Because there is the feeling that classical music is for the elite.” In fact, the bank has conducted studies on the more than two million young people who have been educated in the sistema, which show that two-thirds of them are from poor backgrounds. Other studies link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. Weighing such benefits as a falloff in school dropout rates and a decline in crime, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in the sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.
It is true, however, that Abreu argues that the poor are entitled to not only Mozart and Beethoven but also to the best of art and architecture. He retained two of Venezuela’s most distinguished abstract artists to help decorate the center, which contains a beautiful wood-paneled 1,200-seat auditorium, a 400-seat chamber music hall (an afterthought of Abreu) and several acoustically pleasing recording spaces. After attending concerts of Dudamel with the Youth Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, which is one of the poshest settings for music in the world, Abreu admired the granite entry floor of the concert hall. “He went to the Ministry of Finance,” Antola says. “He convinced them. There was not even enough granite in the country. They had to bring it back from Panama, where they had already sold it. He is like a serpent enchanter. You can’t resist.”
And his ambition is unbounded. Within Venezuela, Abreu is determined to reach even further into society. Supported by the government, the sistema has started to introduce its music program into the public-school curriculum, aiming within five years to be in every school and to double its enrollment to 500,000 children. The organization is also pressing lower in the class structure, having introduced a pilot music-education program in three cities for the homeless children who subsist as scavengers in garbage dumps. Outside the country, the sistema is cooperating with programs in nearly every Latin American country; and in Europe, Simon Rattle, a leading proponent of music education, has worked with Venezuelan experts to enhance the already impressive program that his orchestra manages in Berlin.
In a stroke of auspicious timing, Dudamel’s precocious success has coincided with the sistema’s international advance. “Gustavo is the visible face of what is coming behind,” Antola says. “You needed some sort of emblem. People are discovering Gustavo and the sistema simultaneously.” In his words and his achievements, Dudamel is an unmatched spokesman for the sistema’s virtues. “You feel a young sound and a young energy in the sistema,” he says. “We are not looking at an individual goal, it is always collective. I am a product of the sistema, and in the future, I will be here, working for the next generations.”
As an international celebrity whose career was incubated by the sistema, Dudamel is uniquely able to champion its expansion at home and promote its adoption abroad. If successful, the “Youth Orchestra L.A.” initiative of his new home, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, may prove to be a pilot project for reinventing music education in this country. You can see why devotees are looking to Venezuela with the fervor of Ponce de León hunting for magically rejuvenating waters in Florida. This dual vision — of hundreds of thousands of young people transformed by the sistema and of a youthful conductor who can bring audiences to their feet cheering — is a powerful sign of vitality to rebut those grim-faced pulse takers who are forever proclaiming the senescence of classical music.