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Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra comprises many teens who grew up in dire poverty. ((Glenn Gould Foundation))

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the remarkable philharmonic created from Venezuela's El Sistema music education program, makes its Canadian debut next Monday.

And it's bringing along two of its most internationally renowned stars — its founder, Jose Abreu, and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan wunderkind who graduated from El Sistema.

Schedule of events

  • Oct. 26: Opening gala concert with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. Jose Abreu to be honoured with the Glenn Gould Prize.
  • Oct. 27: Abreu to be presented with 150 instruments for students of El Sistema.
  • Oct. 27: Ensembles from the orchestra to perform in nine Toronto secondary schools and for at-risk children in Toronto.
  • Oct. 28: A day-long symposium at the Royal Conservatory of Music for educators, scientists and others. Abreu and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin are keynote speakers.
  • Oct 29: Simon Bolivar Orchestra directed by its own young conductors to perform in front of 14,000 students from across Ontario at the Rogers Centre.

Abreu is being presented with the $50,000 Glenn Gould Prize, an award named for one of Canada's most famous musicians and given in recognition of an exceptional contribution to music and cultural humanitarianism.

Dudamel, who took up the baton as music director at the Los Angeles Philharmonic last week at age 28, will conduct the Bolivar orchestra at the prize ceremony in his first Toronto appearance.

"Because Glenn Gould has enormous stature throughout the musical world, Dr. Abreu was deeply honoured. In the last year or so, he'd received 30 international prizes [including the Polar Music Prize], but this one obviously spoke deeply to him," said Brian Levine, managing director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, which has organized a week of musical events around the award.

Abreu was so honoured that he agreed to a five-day residency in which the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra will interact with Ontario students. Levine calls the residency an "extraordinary gift" for Canadians.

Orchestra members had rough start in life

Many of the orchestra's 250 young members, ages 16 to 22, have overcome tough circumstances in the barrios of Venezuela to pursue a career in music and have intense personal stories about how music has made a difference in their lives, Levine said.

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Venezuelan pianist, economist and educator Jose Antonio Abreu founded the country's renowned youth orchestra system. ((Glenn Gould Foundation))

"You've got very high murder rates in a place like Caracas," he told CBC News. "You've got endemic issues of kidnapping, home invasions, and most of these kids grow up in conditions of financial disadvantage that are far more dire than what we would be familiar with.

"The goal is not to curl the audience's hair with tales of violence, but say, 'Here is the environment I grew up in, and this is why we were always afraid. Now I'm not afraid any more because I learned I can do these things, play music, stay in school, give back to my community.' "

That's the story they'll be taking to Ontario high school students in a concert Thursday before 14,000 students at the Rogers Centre (Skydome) on Thursday.

They'll make more personal contact in small ensemble groups that will play at Toronto high schools and at programs for at-risk youth, including ones at Dixon Hall and Regent Park Music School.

Levine envisions emails being exchanged and Toronto students getting a picture of just how rough life is in other countries.

But beyond that, he wants educators, politicians and other decision-makers to understand just how powerful a tool music education can be.

"Every kid has enormous creative potential, and music has some very unique advantages in terms of helping kids to unlock it," Levine said. "We know neurologically that it involves many centres of the brain — those involved with language, reading, mathematics, eye co-ordination and physical coordination. The emotive centres and ability to feel compassion and empathy are all deeply stimulated by being involved with music."

Music education system has service component

Venezuela's system of free music education has many side benefits for society, even in cases when students don't go on to be the next Dudamel. It fosters social cohesion, encourages kids to stay in school and encourages leadership by giving every child a chance to conduct, Levine said.

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Conductor Gustavo Dudamel will lead the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in a single engagement in Toronto on Monday. ((Glenn Gould Foundation))

"It's also based on the idea of service. So, many of the kids who come through the system who then graduate from school and get into university and away from the barrios — rather than turning their backs on it, will come back and give lessons 24 hours a week," he said.

A conference Wednesday for educators, musicians and others interested in El Sistema will give Canadians more exposure to the workings of Venezuelan program. The keynote speakers are Abreu, a former Venezuelan minister of culture who founded El Sistema in 1975, and Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and the Montreal-based author of This Is Your Brain on Music. The conference also features appearances by Canadian and American educators who have adapted the El Sistema method for local conditions.

"Without us trying to engineer a specific result, it is my hope that by engaging the community broadly that we can begin to create a groundswell of demand for more and more comprehensive programs based on El Sistema," Levine said.

CBC coverage

CBC Radio 2 is recording the gala concert with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It will be broadcast on Tempo on Oct. 30 at 12 p.m. and also on In Concert on Nov. 1 at 1 p.m.  The concert will also be available through On Demand for seven days only, until Nov. 6, on the Radio 2 website.

CBC Radio One will broadcast Jian Ghomeshi's interview with Dudamel on the Q cultural affairs program on Oct. 29.

Venezuela is paying the travel expenses of the Bolivar orchestra and the cost of shipping their instruments to Canada. The cost of the four days of events, which is in excess of $1 million, is being covered by the Glenn Gould Foundation, which hopes to recoup the funds through ticket prices and donations.

And  the Glenn Gould Prize itself, valued at $50,000, is being parlayed into a gift that will have long-term impact on the 300,000 students within El Sistema.

At Abreu's request, the foundation negotiated with Yamaha to allocate the prize in the form of musical instruments.

On Tuesday, Abreu will be presented with 150 instruments, valued at closer to $150,000, as the "cash" portion of his Glenn Gould Prize. The intermediate-level instruments, many of them strings, will go into the hands of Venezuelan students moving into El Sistema orchestras.