Good conduct

The appointments to two top US orchestras of directors not wholly of European descent marks an overdue weakening of prejudice in classical music.

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The public face of American orchestral music changed radically this autumn. For the first time, conductors from ethnic minorities have taken the helm at two of the country's most important ensembles. Alan Gilbert, a half-Japanese native New Yorker, has been appointed musical director of the New York Philharmonic, while over in California the dashing Venezuelan classical idol Gustavo Dudamel has picked up the baton at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

These two appointments - each for arguably the best orchestra on the respective coasts - are an exciting sign of changing times in the classical world. While both conductors have arrived in a scene still largely dominated by white Europeans and North Americans, they are not entirely isolated examples. The international success of the Sri-Lankan/Australian soprano Danielle de Niese and the black Canadian opera diva Measha Bruggergosman suggest that times may indeed be changing. For anyone who believes that classical music has the power to reach beyond its elite, old-world strongholds and connect with people of all backgrounds and nations, the emergence of these talented figures is great news. So why has it taken so long?

It is not, after all, as if classical music hasn't been a global phenomenon for well over a century. Moving on from its roots in Europe's courts and churches, classical music has been one of the West's most successful cultural exports. While the North Atlantic's major cities have never lost their dominance of the genre, there are now orchestras on every continent. Japan, where western classical music was introduced in the late 19th century, has itself introduced innovations such as the simplified Suzuki method, which enables very young children to learn musical instruments more easily (though it failed to make a four-year-old violin virtuoso out of this writer).

Meanwhile, Tokyo now boasts more orchestras than any other city in the world (10 at the last count). And while the musical education available in, say, Germany and Austria is still greatly admired, it is relatively impoverished Venezuela's mass musical training that is getting the world most excited (more of which later). Figures such as the sopranos Jessye Norman and Kiri Te Kanawa, the cellist Yo Yo Ma and the conductor Seiji Ozawa have changed public perceptions of classical music as a uniquely European preserve.

If that's what classical music has sometimes appeared to be, then orchestras and music academies themselves must take part of the blame. It's natural that this great product of European culture has attracted musicians mainly of European descent. Anything but natural, however, are the barriers and rejection non-white musicians have often faced in the past when trying to train in classical disciplines.

A famous example was the jazz pianist and singer Nina Simone, who was discovered as a classical piano prodigy as a child but turned to popular styles to support herself when she was turned down for piano scholarships - solely, she insisted, because of her race and sex. Things have of course changed since the dark days before civil rights - but old prejudices linger. The Vienna Philharmonic, still one of the world's greatest orchestras, was for a long time notorious for refusing to take either non-white or female musicians. Indeed, members of the orchestra's board have in the distant past admitted to disqualifying Asian musicians who had excelled at blind auditions when the screen was removed and their real identities were revealed.

The orchestra's solo flautist, Dieter Flury, went on the record to defend such a policy on German radio in 1996, stating: "The way we make music- is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe, and it also doesn't allow itself to be separated from sex." Under international pressure, the orchestra has relented somewhat in the past few years and since employed female harpists, a small number of female string players and a half-Japanese/ half Austrian male violinist.

These appointments still do not reflect the diverse intake of Vienna's music schools. While the Vienna Philharmonic's standards remain impeccable, an orchestral policy that implies someone's musical "soul" lies in appearance rather than in musical ability does untold damage to those attempting to persuade the world that classical music's power and beauty are potentially universal. The appointments of Gilbert and Dudamel suggests such attitudes may soon be things of the past - though to be fair to them both, beyond their template-breaking appointments they remain very different figures musically. While Alan Gilbert is a measured and respected figure with a long track record as a conductor, Dudamel is still remarkably young, with a firebrand style and a rapid, remarkable ascent to fame. Gilbert is an American insider - although he was chief conductor at the Stockholm Philharmonic for eight years, the New York Philharmonic is almost literally his alma mater, as both his parents were once violinists in the ensemble.

Dudamel, however, is a Venezuelan newcomer and has been greeted with a degree of excitement that is almost unprecedented. It's easy to see why. On the most superficial level, Dudamel's youth (he is 28) and good looks make him especially memorable in a milieu often lacking visibly recognisable stars. Blessed with a striking, chiselled face and the sort of flowing locks that seem tailor-made for bobbing around expressively during moments of musical intensity, he fits the public's image of the passionate maestro perfectly.

His ability to galvanise an orchestra, to motivate musicians to create performances that are both dynamic and subtle also marks him out as someone whose musical career is only going to get more interesting. This flair has led to Dudamel's receiving the sort of gush normally reserved for rock stars. The press and blogosphere got whipped into a state of huge excitement running up to his arrival in Los Angeles, while his first concert's audience spilled from the Walt Disney Concert Hall to a simulcast watching on screen in the plot opposite.

With his name gaining purchase far beyond classical circles, there is now even an iPhone application that enables you to "conduct along with Dudamel". But there is yet more to Dudamel fever than this. The apointment of the first Latino conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been recognised as the marker of a cultural shift within America. The orchestra's host city, after all, has a Hispanic population that hovers just below 50 per cent. A talented, internationally fêted Hispanic conductor taking over the helm of one of the city's major cultural institutions offers an important symbol of what the region's still growing Latino population can contribute to the wider culture.

Dudamel's advent is also a salutary lesson in what can be gained from widespread musical education, as he is the product of a muchadmired Venezuelan musical training system that has shaken up ideas about classical music's reach and demonstrated just how much it can do for people far beyond its traditional audience. Called simply El Sistema, the initiative that trained Dudamel is a youth programme that encourages children from underprivileged backgrounds to learn to play musical instruments, and by doing so to help put their lives into better order. Founded by economist José Antonio Abreu in 1975, El Sistema tries to boost social inclusion by turning impoverished youngsters on to classical music, giving them instruments to practise on, teachers to guide them, and by setting up bands and orchestras to help them to develop and work together.

Now a proudly publicised example of social change in President Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (though it long predates his arrival in office), El Sistema's guiding organisation has created a network of 102 youth and 55 children's orchestras (30 of them full symphony ensembles). More than 250,000 young people are involved in its projects, and last year it extended its programmes to lessons for adults in prisons.

The programme's record of fostering excellence is impressive - beyond Dudamel, it has trained musicians such as double bassist Edicson Ruiz, who joined the Berlin Philharmonic at 17, the solo flautist Pedro Eustache and the British-based conductor Natalie Luis-Bassa. But it is far more than just a hothouse for international talent. El Sistema uses the classical orchestra as a social model to teach children about cooperation, responsibility and mutual respect, with the better players returning to pass on their skills to the others through teaching.

As Abreu himself has said: "An orchestra is the only group where people get together to reach agreements and they reach those agreements producing something beautiful." Many classical music fans have long feared that the younger generation will lose interest in the field, so El Sistema's success is exciting. That such an initially humble enterprise could end up helping to revive an entire nation's classical music scene and even send players to the world's top ensembles is proof that the genre's transformative power is still very much alive.

By demonstrating how people can make the classical music tradition their own, it could well pave the way for a brilliant future.