Skip to main content

They're an unlikely looking pair, the young one with his wild hair and buoyant presence, the older with his slight stoop and grandiloquent manner that sometimes caps a verbal cadence with a wide grin. But Gustavo Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu are deeply linked by personal history and by their faith that art can be a potent weapon against just about every social ill.

They arrived in Toronto at the beginning of the week, and within a few days seemed to have the whole town talking about a miracle in music education happening in Venezuela today, and perhaps tomorrow around the world. What was initially supposed to be a simple award ceremony and concert - held on Monday to honour Abreu for winning the Glenn Gould Prize - turned into a week of school concerts, community activism and staggeringly effective networking for a cause that Abreu promotes with missionary zeal.

By Tuesday morning, Abreu was already talking about a Canadian "mission," that will include a binational youth orchestra of 200 players from Canada and Venezuela. When reporters, cameras and two members of the Canadian Brass convened to see Yamaha Canada hand him $150,000 worth of instruments (triple the worth of the Gould Prize), Abreu smoothly said that the new orchestra would play on the gifted instruments in Toronto next year, and that he hoped Yamaha would step up and sponsor that too.

Dudamel, the most celebrated young conductor in the world right now, is Abreu's protégé, and not just because the latter named him for the City of Toronto Protégé Award that every Gould Prize winner bestows. Dudamel was a preschooler when he entered Abreu's El Sistema, the national network of music instruction and ensembles that Abreu has been cultivating in Venezuela for over three decades.

"He created this beautiful and huge program that is unique," Dudamel said. "We are his sons, we have his blood in our veins, and it's not just about music, it's about building the society and creating better citizens."

Dudamel is the star product of El Sistema, and has a high platform from which to propound its merits. Last month, at age 28, he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, taking over from Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose youthful picture on a CD cover years ago first allowed Dudamel, when he was still a boy, to believe that a young person could conduct an orchestra. Salonen also mentored Dudamel after hearing the virtually unknown young conductor sweep the field at a major competition in 2004.

Dudamel has become known for the energy and breadth of his performances, and for a rhythmic vitality that is no doubt related to the music of his country. All those traits were on display during a Toronto concert on Monday with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, whose members (all El Sistema graduates) spent the rest of the week playing educational concerts around the city.

When Dudamel talks about the kind of orchestral sound and character that he likes, he might be describing a favourite wine.

"I love always a deep sound, with real body and personality," he said, in his resonant baritone. "I love a warm sound, though you also have to be available to make the differences in sound needed to communicate different types of music."

He has spent the past two years as music director of Sweden's Gothenburg Symphony, and has enjoyed the "beautiful Nordic sound" and performance tradition they have been cultivating since the orchestra was formed in 1905. The L.A. Phil is a different proposition, with a more indirect link to the European tradition and a regional population that is 50 per cent Hispanic. Dudamel believes he will find a ready audience for Latin American pieces seldom heard in North America, and already has a commission on the way from Argentinian composer Esteban Benzecry.

Dudamel will also do lots of American music in L.A., as well as big dramatic works by the likes of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, whose Symphony No. 1 has become a personal specialty. His season-opening performance of the piece (along with John Adams's new City Noir) will soon be available on a Deutsche Grammophon recording for iTunes and on a live DVD. He and the orchestra will take the same program on an eight-city U.S. tour in May. He is already putting down other American roots: on Thursday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave him a $75,000 arts award and a residency at MIT in April.

He remains in charge in Gothenburg at least through 2012, and has two more recordings with the SBYO coming on Deutsche Grammophon this year. Sales of a new compilation called Discoveries will help fund El Sistema initiatives in Los Angeles (where a Sistema-style youth orchestra has just been established), Scotland, and maybe even in Canada, where a Sistema-style program has just started in New Brunswick.

It's the mission again, and nobody talks about it more grandly or passionately than Abreu, whose first big step in founding El Sistema was to convince Venezuela's ministry of health and social development (which has funded the program all along) that putting violins in the hands of poor children could patch up the country's social fabric. During a break in a symposium at the Royal Conservatory, he explained why, for him, music education is a matter of social justice.

"People refer to this talking only of material wealth, leaving aside the spiritual patrimony of humanity, within which art takes a very important place," he said, through an interpreter. "The distribution in the world of arts education is tremendously unjust. When arts education takes the place in our society that it deserves, we will have much less delinquency and violence, and much more motivation towards noble achievement.

"My struggle is for a society in which art is something more than just an aesthetic dimension of life. It is a primary instrument for the development of the individual and of the people."

The struggle continues, as the man some consider a secular saint keeps a constant eye out for ways to further his dream everywhere. With disciples like Dudamel, he can hardly fail.

Interact with The Globe