In collaboration with our editorial staff, contributors, and music writers polled from across the nation, Listen offers our highly subjective list of the Fifteen Most Inspiring People in Classical Music Today. Taking “inspiring” as our watchword, we found ourselves often drifting beyond the terra firma of usual-suspect musicians and rediscovering stories we feel compelled to share. Ultimately, we are confident that all the inspiring men and women on our list are making classical music all the richer for their contributions.
Few orchestras headlining Carnegie Hall include former drug dealers, addicts and hustlers among their ranks; you won’t find many clarinetists who have been locked up repeatedly for armed robbery, or French horn players with a former crack habit. But when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYO) came to New York on its 2007 tour, many of its two hundred musicians had traveled a long way from lives of desperate poverty and crime. Their rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo,” now a widely seen YouTube clip, was downright ecstatic, complete with swaying, singing, dancing, spinning basses and twirling trumpets.
The SBYO is the flagship ensemble of El Sistema, a Venezuelan music education system that takes underprivileged children from decaying slums and bullet-scarred shantytowns to a vast network of regional music schools and youth orchestras. The program is the brainchild of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, an economist and classical musician who believes that music can help children from impoverished circumstances achieve their full potential and thus promote social change. Since its founding in 1975, the program has taken more than one million children between the ages of two and eighteen, the majority of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons.
El Sistema is also the story of one prodigy, himself from a lower-middle-class family on the outskirts of Barquisimeto in the Venezuelan interior. Gustavo Dudamel entered the program and took up the violin at age ten. By eighteen he was the SBYO’s music director. Now twenty-nine, he recently became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he is putting a young, multicultural face on an art form often perceived as graying and elitist. He’s also helping to bring the model of El Sistema to other countries. He has started working with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), an initiative to build youth orchestras in underserved communities throughout Los Angeles.
The Inter-American Development Bank has calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema has reaped about $1.68 in social dividends, given the falloff in school dropout rates and a decline in crime. Dr. Abreu has put its impact another way: “Poverty means loneliness, sadness, anonymity. An orchestra means joy, motivation, teamwork, the aspiration to success. It’s a big family dedicated to those beautiful things that only music brings to human beings.” — Brian Wise
Marin Alsop frequently credits Leonard Bernstein as the mentor who inspired her to become a conductor. But it’s not hard to imagine the aging maestro being buoyed in turn by the potential he must have sensed in his Tanglewood student as she was just setting out on her pathbreaking career. Alsop, now fifty-three, would go on to become the first woman to helm a leading American orchestra when she took up the position of music director of the Baltimore Symphony in 2007. [Maestra JoAnn Falletta was named music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1998 — Ed.] For all its historical significance, though, breaking the gender barrier is merely one aspect of Alsop’s charismatic role as a conductor for the twenty-first century. Her style of creative collaboration emphasizes music-making not as a self-absorbed art — a dead end amid the cultural noise of our era — but as a powerful and inclusive social act. What Alsop has above all inherited from Bernstein — and carries forward — is a passionate sense of the conductor as a storyteller who is driven to rekindle the curiosity of musicians and audiences alike.
— Thomas May
Martha Argerich became an inspiration to half the world’s population — at the very least — when she upset the male-dominated piano circuit by winning the seventh International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in 1964. Her prodigious technique and imaginative playing drew comparisons to past titans of the keyboard. But her free-spirited personality has since transcended gender issues to inspire generations of performers and audiences to listen deeper to great music. When she plays Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Prokofiev and many others, it is as if she is composing the music on the spot. Her willingness and courage to interpret music as she feels it — putting herself out to be judged — is more inspiring even than the conviction that drove her to quit the jury of the 1980 Chopin Piano Competition in protest when pianist Ivo Pogorelich was eliminated. Today, Argerich not only continues to perform and record, she literally inspires by supporting young artists. But the greatest element of Argerich’s playing? She makes the music sound young and fresh, too.
— Andrew Druckenbrod