Dudamel and LA Philharmonic make waves in Caracas

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By IAN JAMES, Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Star conductor Gustavo Dudamel is thrilling fans in Venezuela as he performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in his homeland, fresh from winning a Grammy.

They are performing a series of Gustav Mahler's symphonies and giving a boost to the famed Venezuelan music teaching program known as "El Sistema." Dudamel is a product of the program, which has brought music education to children throughout the barrios of Venezuela.

Virtuosos from the L.A. Philharmonic took time to teach young musicians in the orchestra program, and have raved about their training and enthusiasm.

"The learning for me is really to feel the passion from these young artists," said Bing Wang, a 44-year-old violinist originally from Shanghai who is the orchestra's associate concert master. "I have never been here, but I feel through Gustavo and through music we are all connected."

Dudamel was typically passionate and energetic as he led the orchestra on Wednesday night in Mahler's Symphony No. 6, his curly hair bouncing when he jumped at a crescendo. The sold-out audience in Teresa Carreno Theater applauded enthusiastically for several minutes.

"At a personal level, it's a huge challenge, physically just as much as mentally," Dudamel said on Thursday while attending several separate performances by Venezuelan youth and children orchestras. "It isn't easy, but it's wonderful."

The symphonies have been attended by many young musicians shouldering instrument cases. Many of them have studied for much of their lives in El Sistema, or the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela.

"Mahler is very difficult," said Maria Gabriela Barreto, a 21-year-old violinist in the audience on Wednesday night who said she learned from the musicians' style and who praised Dudamel's magnetism.

The 31-year-old conductor is a national hero in Venezuela. Outside the hall, vendors sold T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with images of him. Also on sale were chocolates wrapped in portraits of Mahler.

Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic won a Grammy on Sunday for best orchestral performance for Brahms' Symphony No. 4.

Fans who couldn't get tickets watched the concert on a large screen set up on a terrace outside the concert hall.

"It's been truly an experience, every day something different," said Vivian Gonzalez, a 60-year-old retiree who hasn't missed a concert in the series.

The finale comes on Saturday night, when a chorus of about 1,200 singers, including roughly 400 children as young as 7, will join both the L.A. Philharmonic and Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in performing Mahler's Symphony No. 8. The performance will be broadcast live to more than 400 movie theaters across the U.S., and will also be shown in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil.

It's the first time the L.A. Philharmonic has performed in Venezuela. Dudamel, who is in his third season as the orchestra's music director, said it was a dream for him to lead both orchestras in Venezuela.

"Two at once. It's something historic," Dudamel said. "It's a presentation of unity, of harmony."

"It's an enormous honor for me to be part of this family."

Dudamel joined the audience and applauded at performances by children's orchestras as well as the White Hands Choir of deaf and disabled youth. Singing that accompanied the choreography of white-gloved hands brought some in the audience to tears.

Afterward, the choir members lined up to hug Jose Antonio Abreu, the 72-year-old founder of El Sistema.

Abreu, a former congressman, started the program in 1975, and it has expanded throughout the country since then, providing instruments and training for many children whose families otherwise couldn't afford it. The network of orchestras has been financed by successive governments over the years, and similar teaching programs have sprung up in places from Scotland to California.

Abreu said this week's concerts are similarly making music history.

"We're innovating," Abreu said in an interview in his office. "What's happening here now with this Mahler project is an example for the world, and it's unique."

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Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap

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