tue 23/07/2024

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, Royal Festival Hall

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, Royal Festival Hall

Politics aside, the Venezuelans deliver an electrifying night of music

Gustavo Dudamel: he can't change the world but he can make music

Standing ovations. Spontaneous genuflections. A we-can-change-the-world lecture. This must be what's it like to live in a Communist state. Funnily enough, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, who we were saying goodbye to last night in the final concert of their four-day Southbank residency, already do. I'm not a supporter of El Sistema, the body which gave birth to this youth orchestra.

I'm amazed anyone thinks that an educational organisation set up to impose the Western classical canon on street kids in Venezuela (and now Scotland) because it's somehow supposed to miraculously make them a) cleverer and b) wealthier is worth supporting. I'm not a supporter of El Sistema for the same reason that I'm not a supporter of Voodoo.

Contrary to what Jude Kelly and El Sistema's many propagandists say, there is no evidence that classical music is an effective agent for "social transformation". Playing in an orchestra does not make you any better, wiser, richer, more emotionally or socially intelligent, as anyone who has read Professor John Carey's What Good Art The Arts? will know. In fact, if anything Carey's book suggests that the only way that music has transformed the world in the past is for the worse. Certainly, the propaganda that Chavez's authoritarian government has received through the orchestra's worldwide evangelisation might be argued to have made Venezuelans' lives worse in bolstering a tyrant.

How is it that Terfel can maintain his dignity while looking like a cheap hen-do stripper?

But if music can't change the world, it can at least transform an evening. And I've got to hand it to them, this the Bolivarians did with aplomb - even though they were slightly hamstrung by some dodgy contemporary music in the first half. Esteban Benzecry's three movement Rituales Amerindios, a touristy journey through the pre-Columbian cultures, is a strange hodgepodge of postwar styles. A bit of fast-bowled Boulezian arpeggiation. A dash of Ligetian textural denseness. A large dollop of Varèsian energy. Some Vivier-like moments of tonal clarity. And a Coplandesque harmonic and rhythmic orderliness. So foursquare was the overall shaping, however, that the work found it quite easy to morph into "We Will Rock You" at its close. 

But then came Strauss's Alpine Symphony. That they'd go hell for leather was expected. That they'd invest each note with a degree of sensuality was also unsurprising. But that there would be maturity and musicality too was not in the script. But there it unmistakably was. Following an amble by the brook that appeared to include a hanky-panky stop-off - at least that's how I made sense of their obscene portamentos, the sort of portamentos that could undo bra-straps and whip off knickers - and a sojourn at a waterfall that not only cascaded and shimmered as any self-respecting waterfall should but also played scratchily with our faces, they returned to their long wind up to the mountaintop. 

Here one witnessed one of the greatest passages of orchestral legato I've ever heard. Dudamel led them up as one, leaving behind a melody that was as epic as it was heady. One got the sense of airlessness at this peak, a sense of oxygen-deprivation that almost seemed to be turning the Alpine vista psychedelic. Certainly, on the descent, the three trombones and tuba appeared to give voice to the mountain itself and, with one last rumbly sneeze, shook us hiking interlopers off. What was interesting was how little one could attribute this vivid phantasmagoric journey to sectional triumphs. Each had spirit, but only the violins stood out in terms of technical and textural virtuosity. Otherwise this was about team effort and collective intensity and a bit of Dudamel magic.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel unexpectedly stepped out onto the stage for an encore, wearing a horned hat, eyepatch and spear. How is it that Terfel can sing his way through one of the pivotal early moments of Rheingold, "Abendlich Strahlt der Sonne Auge", and maintain his dignity, while looking like a cheap hen-do stripper?


Stick to the music. Funnily enough, whatever the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra live in, it is not a communist state. Venezuela is a petrol state, where President Chavez’s oil-funded rhetorical fantasies can coexist with luxury 4X4s bouncing over the potholes, while the real economy sinks. But to suggest that El Sistema is a creation, or creature, of the Chavez era – even if the current government has sought to hijack it – is false. El Sistema long predates Chavismo. Anyone who has seen anything of El Sistema in Venezuela (and many who have not) will find the writer’s observations on the subject ignorant and facile, just as the suggestion that it was originally “set up” to “impose” anything, provides a mirror-image of the puerile world view of Chavez’s supporters in this country. Similarly, to draw parallels with voodoo (another subject on which the reviewer is doubtless well-informed), and brandish The Thoughts of Professor Carey, does not add any further illumination.

Wrong. Nowhere do I say that El Sistema was a product of Chavez. What I do contend, however, is that Abreu and Dudamel haven't done anything to dissociate themselves from the current Venezuelan regime. They've cosied up to it and provided it and Chavez with invaluable propaganda.

Was it playing in a youth orchestra that inspired such strong political views?

It’s richly ironic that you laud the work of Maestro Dudamel and the SBO, yet you devote much of your review by castigating the very system that gave rise to them. Perhaps it is fair comment to disparage the relationship between a regime viewed by many as despotic, and Dr. Abreu and El Sistema. On the other hand, it’s worth pointing out that Dr. Abreu has ensured that some of the vast wealth of the petro-regime is actually lifting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children out of exclusion and despair. Call it propaganda if you will, but the results are real, and they speak for themselves. Mr. Toronyi-Lalic, you personally may not like El Sistema’s communal philosophy and approach, but their results in Venezuela and many other countries around the world are incontrovertible. If you took the time to examine them more closely, you would see that for yourself. Unfortunately, the only thing your screed makes plain are your ideological blinkers.

So glad you commented, Common Sense, because your sentence about El Sistema "actually lifting the lives of hundreds of thousands of children out of exclusion and despair" exemplifies the kind of unsubstantiated, anecdotal guff that I'm talking about. Provide me with any hard evidence that can back up your claims (and I wish you the best of luck in measuring people's "despair" or lack of it) and I'll join the Sistema fanclub. Until then, what you say remains complete voodoo.

I don’t want to get into a slanging match, but I will say one more thing, which is to note that musicians and musical educators from Canada, the United States, Britain, and numerous other countries have travelled to Venezuela find out more about what El Sistma has accomplished. They have spent weeks and months travelling around the country, visiting the various nucleos that have sprung up in the past three decades, and they are unanimous in their praise for what Dr. Abreu has done for the children of Venezuela. I have read numerous commentaries from these and other observers, and they all share a palpable excitement over the possibilities for what El Sistema can do and has done for their own communities. And no doubt you’re aware that no less an authority than Sir Simon Rattle is on record as saying that Dr. Abreu should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Unsubstantiated, anecdotal guff? I don’t think so. These people have taken the time to see for themselves the social transformation that El Sistema has created. They’re all dedicated, committed, passionate individuals – I know a few of them myself. As far as I’m concerned, they have a lot more credibility than a curmudgeonly music critic.

Alas, Mr. Toronyi-Lalic, you take such a politically prejudiced and historically-uninformed view of the relationship between Abreu, Dudamel and the current Venezuelan administration. It is common in our speedy journalistic era to try to score quick opinion points without bothering to note the larger truth. Of course Abreu and Dudamel do not sever themselves from contact with the Chavez administration, the government supports the beautiful and historically-unprecedented work of El Sistema. Abreu has maintained healthy and appropriate relations with the previous six governments that have supported El Sistema's growth, governments ranging from very conservative to very liberal. Abreu has managed a diplomatically virtuosic tour de force over 37 years, recognizing and thanking these governments for their support, without ever letting El Sistema become the program of any one administration but abiding as a program that represents the best of Venezuela, supported by government but apart from politics. If you had applied your glancing notice of Abreu's relationship to a previous government whose politics suited your preferences, would you have praised his perspicacity? What those who are not tainted by politically colored glasses see is two sublime artists, Abreu and Dudamel, appropriately and effectively managing relationships with sponsors, in a way that protects the growth of the work and the artistic integrity of the mission.

Oh, Igor, if you had had the chance to spend a day in a nucleo in the U.S. or elsewhere, I am sure you would not have thrown those words so carelessly on the screen. It's not only classical music, the genre itself that makes children cleverer or wealthier. It's the relationships, the mentoring, the human connections that children participate in day after day, that makes the miracle happen at the psychological, unconscious level. Poverty and low power makes one focus on the present, without hope or care for the future (see Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008, "The Time Paradox"). Gang members, drug addicts, desperately poor people have a present orientation, they'll go for the immediate gratification because tomorrow is highly uncertain. Healthy communities, on the other hand, are built by people with a future orientation - people who plan, work hard today, save and invest effort for remote gratifications. Children in ES nucleos are provided safety and food, so they no longer have to worry about those immediate needs. Learning how to play an instrument or a new repertoire, by the mere pace, structure, and timing of the learning process, can change a person with a present orientation into a future-oriented, hopeful, individual. You can call it magic, voodoo, but it happens, at the unconscious level where we situate ourselves in time. Your critique that El Sistema leaders have served the propagandist goals of the regime is narrowly, present-oriented, but rest assured that the organization sees deep into the future beyond Chavez. My other suggestion to you is about how you use the platform you have at your disposal. You write well, but the energy behind your words is not constructive, nor well informed. The article does not reflect knowledge of the past achievements of El Sistema or an understanding of its approach. I believe that the effort of El Sistema should be applauded and encouraged, not diminished. It gives communities in Venezuela and elsewhere hope. Can you give that?

this guy's never ceases to get his political prejudices into a piece, even if they are entirely irrelevant and completely ridiculous. How can you take him seriously when he devotes half his piece to a caricatured polemic about a country he clearly knows very little about, and bases his mediocre review on it? A waste of space, and very uniformed about about Dudamel and Venezuela. Perhaps he fancies himself as a Brian Sewell?

A lot of fair comment about your review above, Igor, but I think you could be on to something re the intrinsic/extrinsic value of music if you'd think it through a bit more and stop throwing the lazy insults around. As a social movement, it's beyond debate that El Sistema has saved a lot of poor kids from the streets and connected them with the emotional sustenance, not to mention personal discipline that music provides, as you yourself attested in your review. That can only be good.

The reviewer is singularly ill informed about Venezuela and its premier orchestra. He is even way behind the times on the name- they dropped "Youth" from the name several years ago!

In 2007, the Inter American Development Bank decided, after careful consideration, to support El Sistema in Venezuela with 150 Million US Dollars to expand its activities. Basis of this decision was the fact that the crime rate and, even more significantly, the school dropout rate among the over 300'000 participants of El Sistema - of which a large percentage came and come for socially disadvantaged backgrounds - had fallen well below that of control groups. An investment of 1$ in El Sistema therefore resulted in a benefit of 1.68$ for the country due to saved costs that would have come with higher crime and school dropout rates. The Inter American Development Bank would hardly have invested in voodoo. El Sistema developed over 37 years and 7 different governments to develop into what it is now: the world's largest and most successful musical-social enterprise. One of its fundamental principles is daily co-operative ensemble playing or singing and striving for constant improvement and excellence in a social learning environment - not at all focusing only on the Western classical canon but rather integrating a wide variety of local music traditions. The innovative power of El Sistema on various levels is immense, be it in the overlap of shared social values and artistic excellence, the integration - sic - of Latin American orchestra repertoire and choreographic elements in orchestra performance, the integration of families and the wider community, the development of programs like the paper orchestra for young children and of programs for children and adolescents with disabilities and much more. The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel are merely a small - yet magnificent - tip of the iceberg. Concerning your worries about the relationship of El Sistema and the current Venezuelan government, I'm with Jonathan Govias in this excellent blog post: http://jonathangovias.com/2012/05/29/el-sistema-political-tool-or-victim/

if music and arts in general are really useless, why bother to to a concert (an exhibition, a ballet, a theatrical performance) at all?


Lebrecht noted today that the formation of this system ' probably saved 300,000 lives.'

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