For Venezuela’s poor, music opens doors

Wilfrido Galarraga, 21, played trumpet on the roof of his home in La Vega, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, as his nephew Onil Galarraga, 8, joined in on French horn.
Wilfrido Galarraga, 21, played trumpet on the roof of his home in La Vega, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Caracas, as his nephew Onil Galarraga, 8, joined in on French horn. (Globe Photo / David Rochkind)

CARACAS — By the time Lennar Acosta was introduced to classical music at age 15, he had been arrested nine times for armed robbery and drug offenses. A year into the youth’s sentence at a state home, a music teacher came to offer the delinquent, abused, and abandoned children there free instruments, instruction, and an opening to a new life.

”Before, nobody trusted me, everyone was afraid of me. I was a discarded kid. The teacher was the first person who understood me and had confidence in me,” said Acosta, now 23. Bearing scars on his face from knife attacks during a childhood on the streets, he now knows Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler pieces by heart, and long ago cut ties with the criminal gang that raised him.

One of nearly 400,000 children who have passed through Venezuela’s state-funded classical music program since it was founded 30 years ago, Acosta says he owes his life to its caring, dedicated teachers — most of whom are graduates of the program. Today, he plays in the Caracas Youth Orchestra, studies at the national Simón Bolívar Conservatory, and is paid to teach younger clarinetists. He’s even mentoring two young men released from his former state home, who are living with him until they get on their feet.

”This program opened an unimaginably big door for me. It gives you everything, from instruments to affection, which for me was the most important. Everyone deserves the opportunity they gave us,” said Acosta, a crooked smile lighting his face.

The program is the brainchild of Venezuelan conductor José Antonio Abreu, 66, who in 1975 envisioned classical music training as a social service that could change the lives of lower-income, at-risk, and special needs children. From 11 young musicians at the first rehearsal in a Caracas garage, his vision has grown into a national treasure, with 240,000 children as young as 2 — some deaf, blind, or otherwise disabled — now studying and performing in orchestras and choruses nationwide. Hundreds of them tour to international acclaim.

The program, which has been funded by every government since it started, has spurred the creation of similar programs in 22 other Latin American countries. Within five years, Abreu aspires to involve 1 million Venezuelan youngsters in daily programs.

On Saturday, the New England Conservatory’s dean, Mark Churchill, signed an agreement with Abreu’s program, the Inter-American Center for Social Action through Music, to bring top New England students and faculty to Caracas for workshops and to bring Venezuelans to Boston.

During a five-day trip culminating with a joint concert in Caracas’s main center for the performing arts Saturday night, members of the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, the youth orchestra of the conservatory, said they were astonished not only by the technical ability of the musicians, as young as 8, but also by the way the program seems to have worked to build better citizens.

Sarah Koenig-Plonskier, 17, a violinist from Newton, said she came away convinced that ”this is something the US needs — a publicly funded program that’s six to seven days a week. Instead of being in situations where they’d be tempted to do bad things, this is a great outlet for kids, even if they don’t end up playing music professionally.”

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic, shook his head in amazement as the Caracas Children’s Orchestra played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in passionate unison, their bodies and bows swaying to the music.

”All American politicians should have to come down here and see this as they’re obliterating music education in our public schools,” Zander said.

In this country of 25 million people where the average income is $3,490 a year, the youth music program’s budget is $29 million annually, most of it from government funding, said Abreu, who campaigns tirelessly for additional private donations and cooperation programs with foreign orchestras. The Inter-American Development Bank concluded that the program had such profound social impact that it merited a $20 million loan for a new headquarters, where the New England Conservatory will have its own office.

Eighty-five percent of the Venezuelan students come from low-income and working-class families. Practicing three to four hours a day, five days a week in neighborhood centers, plus all day on weekends at the higher levels, the students make stunningly fast technical progress, learning to play with a cohesion and flair that Zander said is rarely heard anywhere.

The great majority become members of Venezuelan symphonies or bands or work as music teachers in the program, Abreu said. A few exceptional talents have won major international conducting competitions or earned seats in major foreign orchestras.

Sir Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic music director, who visited last year to conduct 850 musicians and choral singers in Mahler’s Second Symphony, called the program the most important thing happening anywhere ”for the future of classical music.”

From the start, Abreu’s vision was of music as a way to ”rescue children, as a weapon against poverty,” and he chartered the program in the Ministry of Health and Social Development. What organized sports has done to lift talented children out of ghettos elsewhere in the world, Abreu’s program has done in Caracas, making classical music a part of Venezuelan popular culture.

”When a poor child begins to play an instrument in his home, it begins to transform the household and the neighbors, and his dedication becomes a model for other children,” the bespectacled, balding maestro said. ”When he leaves the slums and starts playing in public places wearing a uniform, it builds his self-esteem.

”Poverty generates anonymity, loneliness. Music creates happiness and hope in a community, and the triumph of a child as a musician helps him aspire to even higher things.”

The impact of the program is evident in La Vega, a sprawling low-income barrio of cheek-by-jowl cinder-block homes clinging precariously to hillsides, where few public services reach. Yet hundreds of La Vega youngsters — most of whom had no prior exposure to museums, concerts, or theater — study classical singing, percussion, scales, and instruments in nearby centers.

When Wilfrido Galarraga practices Mussorgsky’s ”Pictures at an Exhibition” amid flapping laundry on the roof of his family’s tiny cinder-block home, neighbors who once covered their ears now gather around to applaud him.

In 11 years, Galarraga, now 21, has progressed from singing and learning to read music to playing trumpet in Venezuela’s National Youth Orchestra. The first in his family to travel, he has performed in Italy, Germany, Austria, the United States, and all over Latin America. Now a third-year university and conservatory student, he is paid $600 a month to play in the national Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra — more than his father and mother earn combined.

Six years ago, when Galarraga joined the National Children’s Orchestra and began appearing on television, a profound change occurred in his home: His alcoholic father gave up drinking. ”With the new status my son had, I couldn’t have people seeing his father drunk. He was doing so well, I didn’t want to be an embarrassment,” José Galarraga, 53, a security guard, said softly.

His father dreamt of Wilfrido performing someday in Teresa Carreno Cultural Hall, the nation’s top concert venue. The first time he did, his father recalls crying and ”clapping so hard that my hands got red and swollen.”

Wilfrido’s mother, Days Ruiz, a 52-year-old social worker, recalls that at first, neighbors complained about his practicing, asking, ” ‘What’s he doing making all that noise?’ But later when he started doing so well, traveling overseas, they are so proud that they always ask him to play at their homes for birthdays and special occasions.”

As his older brother Antonio Jose, 25, a high-school dropout, watched Wilfrido’s success, he felt inadequate and envious, and one day confided in his brother.

”Wilfrido said to me: ‘It’s not too late. You can go back to your studies, and I will help you.’ With everything he has achieved, he believed in me, too,” recounted Antonio Jose, who went back to high school and now studies engineering.

A key motivation for Wilfrido and so many others is that their dedication, not the status into which they were born, will determine their success.

”A child can reach the first line of an orchestra by merit,” said the grandfatherly Abreu, known to his adoring students as ”El Maestro.” ”An orchestra is a meritocracy and a team. It teaches kids how to live in society. . . . Music makes our children better human beings.”

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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