'...The Lucerne Easter Festival recently trained the spotlight on Diego Matheuz, 25, a protégé of Mr. Abbado, who last week conducted the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the ensemble that stands at the summit of El Sistema’s organizational pyramid. No stranger to the Lucerne audience, Mr. Matheuz substituted for Mr. Abbado last summer at the general rehearsal of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on such short notice he didn’t have time to change into concert attire for the public event. Engagements with Rome’s Santa Cecilia Orchestra followed as a replacement for an indisposed Antonio Pappano, and last fall Mr. Matheuz was named principal guest conductor of Mr. Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart based in Bologna. Despite his closeness to Mr. Abbado, Mr. Matheuz said in an interview that his principal conducting teacher remains the legendary José Antonio Abreu, 70, who founded El Sistema in 1976. A year later it did so well at a youth orchestra festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, that the Venezuelan government began funding it. It has done so ever since through some 10 administrations of differing political persuasions. The current budget is around $80 million, of which 90 percent comes from the government. By all accounts a man of immense organizational and motivational skills, Mr. Abreu is also an outstanding musician with an uncanny ability to pinpoint talent. Mr. Matheuz recalled the time he first expressed to Mr. Abreu an interest in conducting. “‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Come back tomorrow and be prepared to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.’ The maestro has students conduct silently in lessons, then comments on technique and interpretation.” Yet, since each “núcleo” has an average of three orchestras, opportunities abound for first-hand experience before an orchestra.
According to Eduardo Méndez, El Sistema’s executive director, the organization is as much a social as a musical one and it emphasizes having fun. Mr. Matheuz said he was nine when he met Mr. Dudamel, four years his senior, and they became soccer buddies as well as a fellow musicians. Students come from all walks of life, but “for many underprivileged youths,” Mr. Méndez said, “El Sistema is an alternative to drugs, street and gangs. They can compare their options — the street or us.” Yet musical excellence is recognized as essential if students are to be inspired to participate fully...' [...] '...Its players show boundless enthusiasm in all their concerts, but Mr. Matheuz’s reading of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony remarkably channelled that enthusiasm into a cogent interpretation in which moments of brooding intensity were just as convincing as high strung outbursts. He also proved to be an adroit accompanist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which profited from Kolja Blacher’s masterful playing as soloist...'
George Loomis, New York Times