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The World's Greatest Musical Prodigies

April 30th, 2009

Once again I was confronted by children who were “born to be different.” This time they were “musical prodigies”; Alexander Prior, born in London to a Russian mother and a British father and, at the advanced age of 16, a composer of no less than 40 works and a conductor, and now a third year student at the St.Petersburg Conservatory, Zhang Xiaoming, 10 years old from Shanghai China, and already a concert pianist, Michael Province, 13, already studying the violin for eight years, and a student at Lynn University, Simone Porter, age 12, from Seattle playing the violin with the kind of sensitivity you normally expect from someone much older, and Nathan Chan, Cello, age 15, who made his first public appearance at the age of three with the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, and is due to perform later this year with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Last night I listened to the music played by these exceptional soloists, supported by the Northern Sinfonia who must share their glow - as must Channel 4, their sponsors – as they played Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Haydn, Dvorak and the World Premier of the Concerto for Piano, 2 Violins, Cello and Orchestra ‘Velesslavitsa’, composed and conducted by Alexander Prior.

Standing ovations are a rare thing at the Sage Gateshead. This performance received one.

Let me also remind you of some other children, El Sistema, the youth orchestra from Venezuela and its conductor Gustavo Dudamel. These children were not born to be different, but have become so. Let me quote Ed Vulliami in the Observer on 29th July 2007.

‘This is more than the story of one prodigy, himself from a poor family on the outskirts of Barquisimeto in the Venezuelan interior. This is about what Dudamel calls ‘music as social saviour’. He and his orchestra are but the apex of a unique enterprise; the zenith of something deeply rooted in Venezuela, formally entitled the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, but known simply as El Sistema.’
Inspired and founded in 1975 under the slogan ‘play and fight!’ by the extraordinary social crusader Jose Antonio Abreu, El Sistema flourished with the simple dictum: that in the poorest slums of the world, with the pitfalls of drug addiction, crime and despair, life can be changed and fulfilled if children can be brought into an orchestra.  The road taken by Dudamel and his orchestra is one along which some 270,000 young Venezuelans are now registered to aspire, playing music across a land seeded with 220 youth orchestras from the Andes to the Caribbean. Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic, describes El Sistema as ‘nothing less than a miracle… From here, I see the future of music for the whole world.’  But, adds Sir Simon, ‘I see this programme not only as a question of art, but deep down as a social initiative. It has saved many lives, and will continue to save them.’

Across Venezuela, young barrio-dwellers spend their afternoons practicing Beethoven and Brahms. They learn the Trauermarsch from Mahler’s fifth symphony. Teenagers like Renee Arias, practicing Bizet’s Carmen Suite at a home for abandoned and abused children, who, when asked what he would be doing if he had not taken up the French horn, replies straightforwardly: ‘I’d be where I was, only further down the line – either dead or still living on the streets smoking crack, like when I was eight.‘ Or children like Aluisa Patino, 11, who states plainly that she learns the viola ‘to get myself and my mother out of the barrio.’

So, music is not just for the gifted, nor just for the affluent. It is music for everyone. It is where inclusion really works; but it comes up from the ground, it is not imposed, and it sits alongside a quest for excellence and an acceptance of discipline. That was the message that Gustavo Dudamel and Jose Antonio Abreu delivered in a recent Symposium at the South Bank Centre after their orchestra’s trail blazing and quite spectacular performance there.
I was at a concert last week, given by the country’s National Youth Orchestra, 175 strong. Let me quote one of them, Abigail Gostick, a clarinetist from Newbury, age 17:

“Although I am still deciding upon my next steps within the world of music, the NYO has opened up a world of possibilities. This summer, I was lucky enough to be among a small group of NYO musicians working for a week with children who have physical disabilities at a school in Hampshire. It was amazing and deeply rewarding to watch the smiles on their faces as they heard live instruments for the first time and then had the opportunity to lead the ensemble themselves using speech and body movement. To know you can have that kind of impact on people with music is incredibly inspiring. The week has helped me to appreciate that not everyone has the ability to communicate as easily as we do but through the ‘universal language’ of music, we are able to connect with and bring out the best in people.”

Look, listen and learn.