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Caracas diary: L.A. Phil musicians get to know the Venezuelans

February 16, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Ben Hong
Well before the Los Angeles Philharmonic packed for its 10-day tour to Caracas, Venezuela, music director Gustavo Dudamel said that his mission was to show off his orchestra to his home country. And yes, the audiences have been indefatigably enthusiastic. But equally exceptional has been the impression the local musicians have had on the L.A. players.

Midway through their trip, the Angelenos are reveling in their interactions with the young musicians of Dudamel’s home orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony, and the students of the state-supported El Sistema music education program, whose most famous pupil is Dudamel.

The L.A. players have been rehearsing side by side with members of the Bolívar Symphony for Saturday’s performance of Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony. In addition, several L.A. musicians have participated in coaching sessions with student orchestras.

Principal flutist David Buck said that he was so floored by an orchestra of 15- to 18-year-olds that at first he was afraid he would have nothing to say to them. “The whole trip was worth it just for that,” he said.

The Bolívar players are known for their physicality, something that concerns the Americans, said Gretchen Nielsen, the L.A. Phil’s education director. The arm gestures of the string players are so enthusiastic that these players could develop muscular problems as they age, similar to those that found in athletes. Indeed, Dudamel, who trained as a violinist in El Sistema, has had issues with his neck and shoulder.

A room full of Venezuelan students can also be ear-shattering. On a visit, the orchestra’s physician on the tour, Dr. Andrew Wachtel, carried a pair of earplugs draped around his neck rather like a stethoscope.

But cellist Barry Gold also points to the extreme sensitivity of playing he has witnessed that is equally Venezuelan. And, he said, the Venezuelans’ sense of pride has been contagious to the Angelenos.

Much about this tour has been unexpected.

“I was initially concerned about coming,” veteran bass player John Schiavo said, “because this is my first time performing in a country with a dictator.” But once here, he admits to thinking little about President Hugo Chavez and now admits to taking pleasure in the welcoming audiences that the ensemble has encountered.

Before arriving, each player was told that no one should leave the hotel on foot or go anywhere in a group of less than four people.

All the enforced togetherness “has provided an unusual family atmosphere, with everyone getting to know each other a little better,” Schiavo said.

He wasn’t the only musician who felt a certain trepidation about touring Caracas. But as the orchestra winds up its tour, that uneasiness has given way to a comfort with the city — a handful of players sneaked out of the hotel to go drinking with some of their Venezuelan counterparts one night.

RELATED:

Even Gustavo Dudamel is wowed by huge Mahler rehearsal in Caracas

Caracas diary: Meeting the youngest musicians of El Sistema

Caracas diary: A sweet Mahler's Fourth and Dudamel-mania

-- Mark Swed, reporting from Caracas, Venezuela

Photo: Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong, left, teaches young musicians in Caracas. Credit: Ariana Cubil/Associated Press

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