Venezuela is generally known for oil, shortstops, Miss Universes and, for the past decade of course, Hugo Chávez. But the South American country is now recognized as one of the world's most dynamic vessels of classical music, thanks to a 34-year-old program that gives violins, French horns and batons to poor barrio kids and lets them interpret Handel and Tchaikovsky with a Latin verve that last year led Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, to declare, "The future of classical music lies in Venezuela."
That future's flagship is the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which is playing three sold-out concerts in the U.S. this week, including one at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Monday night. It's a chance for American audiences to take in a glorious slice of Venezuela that hasn't been politicized on either side of the Caribbean. Although his government has funded and promoted the Simon Bolivar to a much greater extent than its predecessors, President Chávez has largely refrained from brandishing the orchestra as a propaganda tool of his "21st-century socialism"; at the same time, neither his Venezuelan opposition nor Washington has tried with much force to claim the Simon Bolivar, founded in 1975, as a cultural showcase of Venezuela B.C. (Before Chávez). (Read about Chávez and Venezuela's student opposition.)
Both sides, thankfully, are smart enough to know that the only man who can take credit for the Simon Bolivar is José Abreu, 69, an economist turned classical-music maestro who saw, or heard, in the urban ranchos (slums) and rural outposts of Venezuela the raw material of virtuosos. Like anyone who has spent time in Caracas ranchos such as Catia or San Agustin, Abreu "perceived amidst the poverty an immense musical talent, the facility for elegant and forceful rhythms," he told TIME in an interview over the weekend. Listening to youths play contrapunto on the small, four-stringed guitar called the cuatro, for example, made him conclude they could also play Bach counterpoint on a cello. (See pictures of South America at LIFE.com.)
And he was right. In 1975 he and those teens and even preteens formed the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It not only became a path out of the ranchos, it engendered a network of more than 100 similar youth orchestras around Venezuela that has come to be known simply as El Sistema (The System). It has served some half a million kids since the 1970s and is undoubtedly one of the most successful music-education projects of its kind in the world, emulated today as far away as Scotland. It has also produced its own international superstar: conductor Gustavo Dudamel, 28, who was recently named musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic but is returning to lead the Simon Bolivar on this month's tour of the U.S. and Europe. "Dudamel," says Abreu, "is the incarnation of Venezuela's emergence as a musical power in the world." (Read more about Gustavo Dudamel.)
The 180-member Simon Bolivar, which played Friday in Houston and will perform in Chicago on April 10, is often credited with renewing, if not recreating, the spirit of classical music today. Whether or not it's the world's best youth orchestra (many European music writers say it's still not up to the likes of Germany's Junge Deutsche Philharmonie), few are as vibrant, as it showed in its rousing Carnegie Hall debut in 2007. Abreu describes its core personality as "energy, passion, virtuosity," a "primordial, ardent Latin vitality combined with a high level of technical rigor." The orchestra almost always draws on its vast Latin American repertoire in the U.S. this week it's playing Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos' symphonic suite, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, which uses joropo folk strains and colorful Latin rhythms in much the same way that Gershwin incorporated jazz in his works and those pieces have a knack for complementing better known music like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (also on the Simon Bolivar program this week).
Abreu, who founded the orchestra 24 years before Chávez came to power, was one of the first in Latin America to hit on the democratic notion that folks from the humblest backgrounds can not only appreciate but master high art and he credits his economic training as much as his musical skills. "I was convinced," he says, "that the way to genuinely develop a country was to develop its human capital, and that means promoting people's talents everywhere, not just the élite." It's gratifying, he adds, to watch his students' families, who are often as attuned to the value of the Sistema orchestras as any U.S. parent sending a child to Juilliard would be, buck the reputation of Venezuela's poor as uncultured niches, or uncouth people. "They're enchanted to see their children practicing this music at home, to see the self-esteem it gives them," he says. "They share it with their neighbors."
Abreu won't say whether he thinks sharing the Simon Bolivar with the U.S. can improve Caracas-Washington relations, which are at their lowest point these days. (Neither country currently has an ambassador in the other.) But he does believe that the orchestra "can't help but promote understanding, not just between the U.S. and Venezuela but the New World and Europe," where the Simon Bolivar will travel next week. Even if these kids can't change the political understanding between the U.S. and Chávez and who would want to saddle them with such a thankless task? it's more than enough that they're changing our understanding of classical music.