- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2012

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (AP) - Star conductor Gustavo Dudamel is thrilling fans in Venezuela as he performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the first time in his homeland, fresh from winning a Grammy.

They are performing a series of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies and giving a boost to the famed Venezuelan music teaching program known as “El Sistema.” Dudamel is a product of the program, which has brought music education to children throughout the barrios of Venezuela.

Virtuosos from the L.A. Philharmonic took time to teach young musicians in the orchestra program, and have raved about their training and enthusiasm.

“The learning for me is really to feel the passion from these young artists,” said Bing Wang, a 44-year-old violinist originally from Shanghai who is the orchestra’s associate concert master. “I have never been here, but I feel through Gustavo and through music we are all connected.”

Dudamel was typically passionate and energetic as he led the orchestra on Wednesday night in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, his curly hair bouncing when he jumped at a crescendo. The sold-out audience in Teresa Carreno Theater applauded enthusiastically for several minutes.

“At a personal level, it’s a huge challenge, physically just as much as mentally,” Dudamel said on Thursday while attending several separate performances by Venezuelan youth and children orchestras. “It isn’t easy, but it’s wonderful.”

The symphonies have been attended by many young musicians shouldering instrument cases. Many of them have studied for much of their lives in El Sistema, or the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela.

Mahler is very difficult,” said Maria Gabriela Barreto, a 21-year-old violinist in the audience on Wednesday night who said she learned from the musicians’ style and who praised Dudamel’s magnetism.

The 31-year-old conductor is a national hero in Venezuela. Outside the hall, vendors sold T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with images of him. Also on sale were chocolates wrapped in portraits of Mahler.

Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic won a Grammy on Sunday for best orchestral performance for Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.

Fans who couldn’t get tickets watched the concert on a large screen set up on a terrace outside the concert hall.

“It’s been truly an experience, every day something different,” said Vivian Gonzalez, a 60-year-old retiree who hasn’t missed a concert in the series.

The finale comes on Saturday night, when a chorus of about 1,200 singers, including roughly 400 children as young as 7, will join both the L.A. Philharmonic and Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. The performance will be broadcast live to more than 400 movie theaters across the U.S., and will also be shown in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil.

It’s the first time the L.A. Philharmonic has performed in Venezuela. Dudamel, who is in his third season as the orchestra’s music director, said it was a dream for him to lead both orchestras in Venezuela.

“Two at once. It’s something historic,” Dudamel said. “It’s a presentation of unity, of harmony.”

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