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Gustavo Dudamel and his friends are in complete harmony

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is the star pupil of Glenn Gould Prize-winner Jose Antonio Abreu.

The Glenn Gould Prize Gala

  • At the Four Seasons Centre
  • in Toronto on Monday

The Glenn Gould Foundation really hit the jackpot when it picked Jose Antonio Abreu as the latest winner of the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize. None of the celebrated musicians who have claimed this honour in the past - including Oscar Peterson, Yehudi Menuhin and Pierre Boulez - created anything like the wave of public interest stirred by the Venezuelan music educator, who until recently was so little known that some of the Gould jurors, when they convened eight months ago, had to be told who he was.

Since then, Abreu has ridden a fast escalator to world fame, thanks to the even quicker ascent of his star pupil, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who made a glittering debut last month as the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Gould Prize laureates are offered the chance to bestow a $15,000 protégé award (funded by the city of Toronto). Abreu naturally picked Dudamel, who showed up at Monday's prize gala with 180 musicians of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Every one of them came through El Sistema, Abreu's sprawling Venezuelan network of music instruction and performance.

The evening began with a few presentations and many words, including the news that Abreu will return to Venezuela with $150,000 worth of instruments (his prize amount tripled by Yamaha Canada); and a stirring comment from the laureate about music's solemn importance as a guarantor of "human dignity and true social justice." That notion has real practical significance in Venezuela, where about two-thirds of El Sistema students come from poor environments in which dignity and social justice can be hard to find.

For Abreu, the orchestra is a social organism that directs people's talents and energies toward a common purpose. The SBYO displayed this ideal in spades, playing everything with precision, heart and the kind of technical and stylistic unanimity you get only when every player in the orchestra has gone to the same schools.

The string sound was smooth, gutsy and as well-integrated as that of many "adult" orchestras with a century or more of in-house tradition. The winds were bright, powerful and quick to respond, and the percussion was as nimble as that of a good jazz band.

It seems almost arbitrary to separate the orchestra's effort from Dudamel's. They have worked together for so long (he has known some players since they were preschoolers together) that he could sometimes manage the flow without making any discernible movement.

The players were most impressive in the turbulent, passionate sections of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 , though they did well also with things that required a delicate touch. I've never heard so much lamentation in the hushed, minor-key string statement of the finale's main theme. The main part of this movement flashed by in a virtuoso display of fast ensemble playing. Only a few things, such as the limping, chromatic waltz theme of the opening movement, felt unfocussed.

The concert began with three Latin American pieces. Silvestre Revueltas's Sensemaya showed what happens when you import the brutal rhythms and incantatory themes of The Rite of Spring into a Mexican setting, Antonio Estevez's elegant Mediodia en el Llano exposed just a bit of the long shadow Debussy cast over Venezuelan music, and Evencio Castellano's Santa Cruz de Pacirigua took us on a witty guided tour of a Venezuelan feast day, flirting with several different dance rhythms before and after a sudden shift into a rather solemn cantabile. It was great fun, though I would have been happier if Castellano had stopped with a full meal instead of serving a complete buffet.

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The Revueltas piece hinted at the SBYO's ability to swing, which came out in full force in the first encore: the mambo from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story . The orchestra played and danced through this party piece like the world's biggest and best show band. The Venezuelans in the hall chanted and clapped rhythmically long enough to provoke another encore (a movement from Alberto Ginastera's ballet Estancia ) and then Dudamel led the final bows, not from the podium but from the stage, standing level with his companeros .

Monday's concert will be broadcast by CBC Radio 2 on Tempo on Friday Oct. 30, and on In Concert on Sunday Nov. 1.

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