sun 18/08/2019

theartsdesk in Berlin: More Venezuelans, Even Younger | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Berlin: More Venezuelans, Even Younger

theartsdesk in Berlin: More Venezuelans, Even Younger

The Teresa Carreño Orchestra are on their first European tour. Next stop London

'The shy and floppy-haired Christian Vásquez who wowed the Berlin audience with his command of Beethoven's Fifth

Just seconds into a performance by the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil Teresa Carreño it is immediately clear what Sir Simon Rattle meant when he said, “I have seen the future of music.” The passion and physical and mental energy with which they play, along with the sheer joy they seem to glean from it, is enough to instill hope in even the staunchest cultural pessimist. At the Berliner Philharmonie last week, the orchestra - an even more youthful offshoot, or second generation, of the now world-famous Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra - took the city by storm with their vibrant execution of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Just seconds into a performance by the Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil Teresa Carreño it is immediately clear what Sir Simon Rattle meant when he said, “I have seen the future of music.” The passion and physical and mental energy with which they play, along with the sheer joy they seem to glean from it, is enough to instill hope in even the staunchest cultural pessimist. At the Berliner Philharmonie last week, the orchestra - an even more youthful offshoot, or second generation, of the now world-famous Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra - took the city by storm with their vibrant execution of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

As one radio critic put it the morning after, the band of 14 to 19-year-olds “took Beethoven’s schicksal Musik, gave it new life and opened Germans’ ears anew to their own music”. They played, added Info-Radio’s classical music critic, “as if their lives were at stake”, before summing up the concert as a “highly emotional, breathtaking evening of goose bumps”. From my place in the concert hall, which has seating around the back of the stage, almost as fixating as the young musicians with their wily ways, ironic glances and swaying bodies was a nun sitting behind the orchestra who clapped and cheered ecstatically, not to mention an elderly woman in a red cardigan in the front row who clasped her hands in glee even as soon as the first four notes of the Beethoven sounded and didn’t stop being enchanted by the Venezuelans all evening.

It’s not like a German audience to get so outwardly emotional about such things. Neither, of course, is it usual for musicians to throw their jackets into the audience at the end of a concert, as the Venezuelans now traditionally do at the end of every performance. “The best publicity Chavez could get,” muttered my neighbour as the blue, yellow and red jackets were hurled with gusto into the stalls. Prior to that, we’d seen Sir Simon, fresh from conducting the orchestra in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, pull a shell jacket over his dress shirt and, despite the tightness of the fit, join the percussion section of the orchestra to play the cowbell as the musicians launched into their third encore, "Mambo", from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.

By the time the Teresa Carreño Orchestra reached Berlin last week, they were well into their first European tour. On Tuesday 12 and Thursday 14 October this week, it will culminate with their performances of Beethoven, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky at the Royal Festival Hall in London under the baton of Christian Vásquez, a 26-year-old prodigy who came through the same system – "El Sistema" – as the now legendary Gustavo Dudamel. The shy and floppy-haired Vásquez who wowed the Berlin audience with his command of the Beethoven - as well as several lively encores including "Tico Tico" by Zequinha de Abreu and Aloísio de Oliveira, and Alberto Ginastera’s "Danza Final" - has promised London concert-goers a "joyful" evening of high technical prowess.

Angelica Oliva Leon performs Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto:

Rattle, who has been taking a keen interest in Venezuela’s new generation of El Sistema musicians for several years, admitted that he was overwhelmed this summer when he worked with the Teresa Carreño Orchestra for the first time, claiming they “made better music than many of Europe’s professional orchestras”. He was sufficiently charmed to agree to step in and conduct the Prokofiev last Monday. The admiration seems to have been mutual. Teresa Carreño’s 18-year-old star violinist Angelica Oliva Leon, who this summer was adopted by Claudio Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart in Italy and has been called a female Paganini, described how as soon as Rattle reached the conductor’s podium to take their rehearsal, “It was as if a firework had exploded. We interpreted the Prokofiev in a completely new way.”

220px-Teresa_Carreo_1916The Teresa Carreño Orchestra, named after the pioneering Venezuelan pianist, singer, composer and conductor born in 1853 (pictured right), is one of Venezuela’s newest orchestras, and the product of the El Sistema programme under which more than 300,000 children and young people, mainly from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, are currently making music in state-funded ensembles around the country.

In music-loving circles it is now well known that conductor and economist José Antonio Abreu, the father of El Sistema, has been fighting for more than 35 years to release children from the vicious circle of poverty, violence and criminality through classical music. “Put an instrument into a child’s hand and from that moment it is no longer poor,” he has said, outlining a philosophy which is finding more and more supporters around the world. But there have been more recent developments. Across the country increasing numbers of nucleos or music schools run by the first generation of El Sistema musicians are springing up – everywhere from prisons to slum districts. Most of the young people involved had never even held an instrument let alone heard classical music before they joined the nucleos.

Musicians from Europe, including the Berlin Philharmonic who have been working alongside them for years, have been struck in particular by the solidarity that exists between the musicians – in contrast to the strong competitiveness that reigns in European ensembles. But fittingly, the greatest cheers last Monday were reserved for the frail octogenarian as he made his way from his seat in the stalls to embrace Rattle at the podium.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Teresa Carreño Orchestra perform "Mambo":

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