It’s never a simple matter to go to Caracas. The city is chaotic, choked with traffic and bursting at the seams with poverty. But music lovers still think of it as a privilege to brave the inconvenience and unpredictability in exchange for witnessing – and with extra luck, being a part of – the miracle that is El Sistema, Venezuela’s unique music education program that has enrolled over 300,000 children in orchestras across the nation, and has produced, among other world-class musicians, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel.


On this trip, I got that extra luck to be a participant. I had the opportunity to narrate my youth concert, “The Bernstein Beat,” en español, with one of El Sistema’s extraordinary youth orchestras, Orquesta Sinfonica Juvenil de Caracas, conducted by a dynamic young Venezuelan, Dietrich Paredes.  Maestro Dietrich worked the orchestra hard to master the complexities of excerpts from “On the Town,” Fancy Free” and “West Side Story.” I was so impressed by the teenagers’ focus and good humor. By the end of the week, they were playing the music like champs.


The concert went beautifully, with only one glitch – painfully enough, right at the beginning. For some reason the clarinet player, who had never had this trouble before, added one extra note to the series of repeated notes he plays at the opening of the “Times Square” ballet from “Three Dance Episodes from On the Town,” thereby putting himself one disastrous beat behind the rest of the orchestra. Maestro Dietrich stopped the players, waited for the clarinet player to collect himself, and then started the piece over. The same thing happened. Maestro Dietrich stopped the orchestra, again. I sat motionlessly on my stool to Maestro Dietrich’s left, trembling in my high heels. The hall was engulfed in a sickening silence. Maestro Dietrich started the music again. And the clarinet player did it again. This time the conductor just kept everyone going, and things eventually righted themselves, but it was a tough start for one and all –  especially, of course, for the clarinet player, who never raised his head again and fled offstage before the final bows. Between those bows, just offstage, Maestro Dietrich was frantically looking for him. “Donde está Antonio? Donde está Antonio?”  But he was gone.


The concert was a great success; the kids in the audience shouted “MAMBO!” for all they were worth. Afterwards, Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, the saint-like founder of El Sistema, embraced me and invited me to return to Venezuela to present more concerts. I was as thrilled as if I’d been blessed by the Dalai Lama.


After the concert, there was a lunch in a hotel dining room for Maestro Dietrich and me and our guests, plus some Sistema officials and members of the youth orchestra. We’d been sitting a few minutes when suddenly the musicians burst into applause: Antonio the clarinet player had walked in. The musicians all jumped up from the table and surrounded him with hugs, back slaps, jokes and words of encouragement. He half-jokingly covered his face in embarrassment, but of course resistance was futile, and he was soon smiling and returning the hugs.


I watched all this with my mouth open and my eyes filling with tears. I had never in all my life seen such a magnificent demonstration of support and compassion for a fellow musician in trouble. Truly, this was the essence of El Sistema. As one representative from the organization said afterwards: “We don’t build musicians; we build human beings.”


It would be exciting indeed if El Sistema succeeds in finding its way into the neighborhoods and hearts of young people in the United States.