By Penny Johnson, GGF Contributing Author

Following the much anticipated, student-only performance of the famed, Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) of Venezuela, at Toronto’s Rogers Centre on October 29, 2009, an audience of 12,000 Ontario youth were left spellbound by the brilliant artistic, and dare I say, athletic display of musical excellence, exhibited by the world’s hottest orchestra:

“The entire thing was FANTASTIC!  WE ALL LOVED IT!”  “This was a wonderful gift for our students who were from one of the original EFTO poverty initiative schools.  What an inspiration for all of us.”  “It was an excellent performance and something that too few children have an opportunity of experiencing.”  “Thank you for giving me the wonderful opportunity to take my students to this type of concert.  For many of our students, this was the first time they had the chance to see a live symphony orchestra play.”  “Let’s Do It Again!”

With comments like these, one has to remind oneself that the concert featured not the hit songs of Hannah Montana or Taylor Swift, but rather, classical masterworks such as the fourth symphony of Tchaikovsky, and the William Tell Overture of Rossini.  Small wonder then that the 250-piece SBYO – whose members are all under the age of 25 – has been ranked as one of the world’s top orchestras, having made triumphant appearances at many of the world’s premier concert venues, including Carnegie Hall (New York), Salle Pleyel (Paris), Teatro alla Scala (Milan), and the Vienna Konzerthaus.  The SBYO made their debut in 2007 to critical acclaim at the BBC Proms in London.

As the concluding event in a four-day series of concerts, community outreach engagements, lectures, workshops, and awards ceremonies attended by an impressive 20,737 in all as part of The Glenn Gould Foundation’s Celebration of Music Week, the SBYO concert at Rogers Centre featured El Sistema rising superstar conductors:  Manuel Jurado (Rossini – final section from William Tell Overture); Christian Vasquez (Castellanos – Santa Cruz de Pacairigua); Diego Gusman (Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini); Rafael Payare (Tchaikovsky – Fourth Symphony, 3rd and 4th movements); Joshua dos Santos (Encores: Bernstein – "Mambo" from West Side Story; Ginastera – Malambo from the suite Estancia). Click here for a complete program list.

Being in attendance at the SBYO Rogers Centre concert was an experience that I will never forget.  What a treat it was to hear rock solid performances of staples of the classical orchestral literature, played by victorious young people beaming from ear to ear, dancing, and even twirling instruments.  Members of the orchestra were not the only ones enjoying themselves.  Looking around at a sea of Ontario youth, I was absolutely thrilled and amazed to see all eyes focused on the music with immense intensity and concentration.  Here these kids were, munching popcorn and chips on the home turf of the Toronto Blue Jays for goodness sake, yelling and screaming in adoration with the same excitement for Tchaikovsky and Bernstein as they would for a home run by Jose Bautista or Randy Ruiz!   What an unforgettable experience.


Additional Information

Organized by The Glenn Gould Foundation in celebration of the festivities surrounding the presentation of the Eighth Glenn Gould Prize to Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of the Venezuelan musical miracle known as El Sistema over thirty-five years ago – the system from which members of the SBYO represent the most advanced players – the concert marks a commitment on the part of The Glenn Gould Foundation honouring the legacy of Canadian icon, Glenn Gould by recognizing and celebrating the achievements of those who have made significant advancements in the fields of humanitarianism, music, and communications. 

That the members of the SBYO come from a country where 33% of the population lives in poverty, the proof of El Sistema as a vehicle for social change through music is seen in the lives of the more than one million Venezuelan children who have been a part of the program since its’ inception.  Star pupils include 29-year old conducting sensation and music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and double bassist, 24-year old Edicson Ruiz, who at the age of 17, became the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the first Hispanic American to join the famed orchestra.  The international success of El Sistema illustrates Abreu’s belief that “the culture for the poor should never be a poor culture.”