Music to save lives

Erik, Jason and I just watched Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight), a documentary about the national youth orchestra system of Venezuela. The program began in 1975 as the brainchild of one conductor, José Antonio Abreu, who envisioned remolding all of Venezuelan society through music. In the thirty years since Abreu first started the program, it has grown enormously: besides the national youth orchestra, there are ninety local centers, one in each state, which oversee three local orchestras apiece. There are no auditions; any child who wants to can join. One of our favorite conductors, Sir Simon Rattle, calls the Venezuelan youth orchestra system “the future of classical music.”

To Play and To Fight
Click to watch trailer.

The documentary is mostly composed of footage from the youth orchestras’ performances. Oh my gosh, these kids are incredible. They’re playing very difficult music, and they do it brilliantly; some of the program’s graduates have already made names for themselves in the larger musical world. What is most amazing and inspiring about these kids is that most of them come from very poor or even violent backgrounds, where something as artsily rarefied as classical music would ordinarily never come their way. The documentary shows one young violinist playing gorgeous Baroque music as she walks through the narrow passageways of her shantytown; a neighbor, hearing the violin, sticks his head out to listen as she passes by. It’s a very moving juxtaposition — this bubbly, vibrant music emerging from the crowded, rundown shacks on the hillside.

I have to say, as a documentary, Tocar y Luchar is not that great. Jason whispered to me as soon as the credits came up: “That was the most frustrating documentary I’ve ever seen!” It raises more questions than it answers, and functions better as a promotional film for the orchestra’s cause — in fact, it would have been better categorized as such (though then it would never have made it into the AFI Film Festival). But the beauty of the program, and the beauty of the music, still come through, and we were all glad we went.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]