Crazy Caracas Has Dudamel, Concrete, Tots: Manuela Hoelterhoff

Gustavo Dudamel
Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 8, also known as the ``Symphony of a 1,000,'' on Feb. 18 in Caracas. Source: L.A. Philharmonic via Bloomberg

Caracas has lots of musicians, but now and again as you stew in agonizingly slow traffic staring out at heaps of refuse lining many avenidas, you might wish for a few traffic cops and energetic garbage men.

Yet the abundance of musicians, especially teens hoisting tubas and hugging cellos, makes the capital and country weirdly special.

A nationwide program called El Sistema teaches some 400,000 children about music at a cost of around $80 million a year.

Listening to urchins play Handel and Tchaikovsky makes you gape with wonder and amusement, even if you prefer octogenarians.

I (briefly) forgot about the whimsical three-tiered exchange rate, the ailing socialist blabbermouth who runs the country -- and just announced price controls on toilet paper -- never mind the nightly pile-up at the morgue.

Caracas is the unofficial murder capital of South America. Homicides nationwide hit 19,336 last year.

Teresa Carreno

Visiting Caracas last week to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Mahler symphonies -- the first foreign orchestra appearing here in 30 years -- I moved around with bodyguards and police escorts.

Early one evening, Deborah Borda’s chauffeur drove us ever so slowly to the city’s immense theater complex, which is named after Teresa Carreno, a glittery Venezuelan pianist of the late 19th century (who somehow ended her days around the corner from me on the Upper West Side of New York).

Borda is the fearless president of the LA Phil, whose music director, Gustavo Dudamel, is Venezuelan and still lives here part-time as the comandante of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. When Borda signed the dimpled unknown in 2007, she secured herself a place in music history.

Now 31, Dudamel gets a rock-star reception wherever he goes. Venezuelans lined up at 3 a.m. to buy tickets to hear him conduct the LA Phil during their 10-day tour. By 11 a.m., all tickets were gone.

Borda was still recovering from her luncheon outing when a car in front of her hit a motorcyclist. Within minutes, other bikers sped into view, circled the corpse and began beating cars with their helmets.


As twilight soaks the concrete skyline, the city becomes even harder to navigate. In the sepulchral lighting, elevated roadways and immense tropical trees take on a creepy grandeur.

Finally, having swerved around desperate wretches selling balloons in the middle of the roadway, we entered the Carreno.

My jaw dropped. The capital’s obsession with concrete reaches an apotheosis in the Carreno’s spectacular open-sided lobby, which evokes the brooding prisons by the 18th-century etcher Piranesi.

Two steeply vertiginous, glistening escalators move visitors up to the orchestra level past shadowy jabillos, palms and mangoes. Another escalator glides still higher into the night-time sky.

The interior is typically modern with suspended acoustic panels, wood walls, cantilevered balconies and comfortable seats soon filled with 2,100 extremely quiet listeners who sustained themselves with weird little Venezuelan chocolate tablets bearing Mahler’s face.

A frail wizard approached, dressed in a winter coat (the air conditioning works really well here).

“Maestro!” smiled Borda, embracing Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema. Now in his early 70s, he has saint status in the country.

El Sistema’s Prince

Dudamel is his most famous disciple. The conductor spent his youth in the program, absorbing the European repertoire he now plays without a score -- Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, for instance, which dominates tonight’s program and requires about 1 hour and 20 minutes to present a dark vision of life.

Abreu, a shrewd political operator, slowly built El Sistema into a network of 288 youth orchestras, 250 child orchestras, 30 professional orchestras and 377 choirs all over Venezuela.

“He gave me good advice. Start small, think big, don’t be afraid,” says Borda.

Pounds of Meat

The LA Phil now has its own youth program, which captures the Latino community. And this Mahler Project defines big. It’s an unprecedented collaboration featuring two orchestras, two countries, one depressed Austrian composer and one conductor.

In January, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra flew to Los Angeles, where the players consumed 200 pounds of meat per meal and ended their sojourn in a joint presentation with the LA Phil of Mahler’s No. 8, whose nickname -- “The Symphony of a 1,000” -- suggests how big the man was thinking.

Add in choruses and the number on stage at the Shrine was closer to 1,400.

Tickets were listed on eBay for $800.

Had it not been for the Super Bowl, Borda would have telecast the unusual concert live from L.A.

Never thwarted by logistics, she dispatched a satellite dish, two generators, cameras and recording equipment to accompany the orchestra of 102 and 20 members of her board to Caracas.


El Sistema, meanwhile, supplied an inescapable parade of entertainers.

One afternoon, a phalanx of choristers lined up at the entrance of the Carreno, exhorting us to “March for God.” Inside, thousands of teenagers lurked under the concrete cantilevers, including very small beings sawing away at Handel.

Older comrades, divided into four orchestras, awaited at the Center for Social Action, a new teaching school with a colorful hall and an organ which tested the concrete walls thundering through the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3.

As you may sense by now, Venezuela has an endless supply of performing kids and impressive planning capacities. Everyone arrived on time, played their often long pieces, and returned to their buses without shooting one other.

That’s quite an achievement in a chaotic, impoverished country. A program that starts out like a babysitting service with rattles and triangles seems successful at teaching social skills, pride and peaceful interaction.

Fainting Kids

It’s a new model, says Borda as we sit down for a rehearsal of Mahler’s 8th. “We can’t keep going the way we have. We need to move from the artistic imperative to a social imperative.”

Assistants hover with questions and suggestions. Don’t wear red for the telecast. It’s a Chavista color.

Can John Lithgow sit in the audience? He wants to hear the music. The actor is the host for the telecast. No, he can’t. He must be backstage in case something goes wrong and he has to ad-lib. Also he gets mobbed by fans of “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

On stage in front of us, the bleachers behind the orchestra were filling up with what at this point seemed like billions of singing children.

It’s getting a little sultry in the hall and that worries Borda.

Mahler’s hour-plus symphony requires the chorus to stand from beginning to end. At the last rehearsal, a few children fell over.

Minders pulled them down through the scaffold and into the wings.

“The tiny ones up front are the first to drop,” says Borda.

Dudamel arrives in sneakers and jeans. Confronting the huge, packed bleachers, he has decided to use a score. Charmingly approachable offstage, he’s all unsmiling authority as he gives the downbeat for “Veni, Creator Spiritus.”

Hasta la Vista

Boom. The first kid drops early, crashing through the scaffold, followed by another and another. I counted six before the break, plus one adult. Rehydrated and ventilated, a few sneak back.

Borda agrees to a few cooling units for the telecast. Ambulances are prepared for serious cases.

As I headed home the next day, one event stood out in the sea of tootling, bowing, singing underage enthusiasts: a performance by a special-needs choir from Dudamel’s home state of Lara, where he was born in the town of Barquisimeto.

Many kids were blind, autistic, mentally impaired.

One girl had Down Syndrome; a boy lolled in his wheelchair, but managed well-timed oompahs, eyes glued on the conductor.

Music was the lifeline that pulled them into a bigger world. Music defined them, not the ailments of a cruel fate.

Half the kids sang; the others gestured with white-gloved hands in time to the music.

Special Girl

This “White Gloves” group included a girl with a lopsided face, who was so transported by the singing of her mates that she took on a special beauty.

Borda, not the most sentimental of humans, choked up.

“That girl did something remarkable when I visited Barquisimeto about a year and a half ago with Frank Gehry. She suddenly ran out and embraced Frank.”

Dudamel had petitioned Gehry to design a smaller Disney Hall for his hometown.

The super-busy architect had flown down without much enthusiasm. Meeting the girl changed his mind.

In Barquisimeto, a bumpy six-hour ride from Caracas, the sun will someday shine on a Gehry theater and its greatest son.

Saturday’s concert will be repeated on Feb. 29. Information: or +1-323-850-2000.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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