By Penny Johnson, GGF Contributing Author

Arguably one of the most prestigious awards ceremonies in Canada and referred to by The Toronto Star as “the Nobel Prize of the Arts,” the Gala presentation of The Eighth Glenn Gould Prize to Dr. José Antonio Abreu – founder of the Venezuelan musical miracle known around the world as El Sistema – took place in Toronto on October 26, 2009 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts to an audience of 2,000 people.

(To see more pictures, view the gallery here.)

Hosted by CBC’s Andy Barrie and sponsored by The Bay, the Gala kicked off a four-day series of events centered upon the Celebration of Music Week, an ambitious effort of The Glenn Gould Foundation to celebrate the legacy of Canadian icon Glenn Gould and the triumphs of Abreu’s 35-year old system for music education, one that has transformed the lives of over one million Venezuelan children and which is now being adopted in 25 countries around the world.

The evening’s award ceremony showcased the 250-piece Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) – one of the hottest orchestras in the world whose members are all under the age of 25 – in their triumphant Canadian debut and the first-ever symphonic concert at the Four Seasons Centre.  Representing the most advanced players of El Sistema, the SBYO gave a stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and a host of Latin American works.  Conducting sensation and former El Sistema pupil, Gustavo Dudamel, who currently serves as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led the SBYO in a performance which Toronto Star music critic, John Teraud described as “…a phenomena indeed!  I’ve never heard such thunderous applause from an audience ever in Toronto.”  Founding Director of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins, remarked that “…to experience this phenomenon live was a truly moving experience for me.  I’m still shaken and awed....”

The formal presentation of The Glenn Gould Prize to Dr. Abreu preceded the concert with Glenn Gould Foundation President, Glenn Morley bestowing the honour.  Dr. Abreu had these words of gratitude:  “Ladies and gentleman:  To properly honour the name and memory of Glenn Gould, we would guarantee that all the youths and children of the world have full and free access to music education, and a life of art.” 

Mayor David Miller presented Maestro Dudamel with The Glenn Gould City of Toronto Protégé Prize.  “It is impossible to say thank you to Maestro Abreu,” remarked Dudamel, “because he gave to us the opportunity to have a life through culture, through music.”  In addition to the $50,000 and $15,000 awarded to Abreu and Dudamel respectively, each received a bronze statue of Glenn Gould designed by Ruth Abernethy, and a framed artwork piece by sketch artist Yuka Zuver.

Prior to the Gala, 150 music students were treated to an open dress rehearsal at the Four Seasons Centre featuring Maestro Dudamel and the SBYO.  A pre-Gala reception, attended by a crowd of 250 in the Jackman Lounge, served to welcome Dr. Abreu in his first ever visit to Canada.  President and CEO for The Hudson’s Bay Company, Bonnie Brooks acknowledged the significance of Abreu’s achievements, claiming “Dr. Abreu’s teachings promote the values of discipline, hard work, respect, service to others, fellowship and humanity.”  John Rae, Executive Vice President of Power Corporation added his appreciation for the work of Abreu:  “Thank you for your vision; thank you for your generosity, and for sharing it with all of us.  As a Canadian company, we’re very proud to be part of this tremendous week of the Celebration of Music.”

Coverage of the opening Gala festivities included a segment on CBC’s The National, an interview with Gustavo Dudamel hosted by Jian Ghomeshi—airing twice and reaching an estimated three million listeners—a series of public service announcements featuring Canadian opera sensation Measha Brueggergosman, and a Glenn Gould window display by Gala sponsor, The Bay at the Richmond & Yonge Street store.