Tuesday 10 June 2014

Sounds Venezuela - El Sistema in London

Christian Vasquez and the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Christian Vasquez and the
Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Last weekend (6 to 8 June 2014), the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their conductor Christian Vasquez visited the South Bank Centre. The orchestra is the showpieces of the Venezuelan El Sistema and Vasquez himself is a product of the system which uses music for social change. The orchestra's visit to London was the end of a European tour which has taken in countries from Scandinavia to Turkey; they were accompanied by the founder of El Sistema Jose Antonio Abreu.

The South Bank Centre used the Venezuelan's visit as the centre piece of a whole weekend of participatory music making activities, their Nucleo: Sounds Venezuela with the whole South Bank complex exploding with music making by young people including performances from groups like In Harmony Lambeth (one of the UK's El Sistema-inspired groups), the scratch group One Giant Orchestra for musicians of all ages and abilities, a Ukulele jam and even some drummers. On both my visits to the South Bank over the weekend I couldn't help but come across young people playing music. And not just playing, the performance by the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela on Sunday 8 June had an audience full of children and young people. Many, I imagine, were involved in some of the other performances but the performance by the Venezuelan orchestra was an impressive example of the sort of music making and social change which can be achieved with work and dedication.

Eduardo Mendez, the head of the Fundacion Musical Simon Bolivar which runs El Sistema, commented that the sort performances which the El Sistema orchestra now achieves did not happen over night. El Sistema was founded by Jose Antonio Abreu nearly 40 years ago, and during that time from small beginnings and through a variety of political change the organisation has grown. The organisation started 39 years ago with Abreu rehearsing with 11 children.

Mendez's remarks were made at a press conference on Saturday 8 June. The conference was attended by both Venezuelan and UK journalists and was inevitably run in both Spanish and English, with Reynaldo Trombetta, the Director of Communications for Sistema England doing a sterling job cross translating.

The conference was intended to be headed by maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, but unfortunately his meeting schedule was changed (he was in the UK to talk about the UK El Sistema-inspired organisations) and he was not able to attend. In his stead there was Eduardo Mendez (of the Fundacion Musical Simon Bolivar) and Christian Vasquez the conductor of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.  Mendes explained that the tour had been used to make contacts with the El Sistema-inspired organisations across Europe and that he was very pleased with the reach covering Stockholm to Munich to Istanbul. But he also regarded it as a tour to the 500,000 young people involved in Sistema organisations.

This was the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela's second visit to the UK and Christian Vasquez talked of how it was a challenge to match expectations after the success of the first visit. Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra will be returning to the South Bank Centre in Jan 2015 (The Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra's players are aged 14 to 19, whilst those in the Simon Bolivar Orchestra are 17 to 30).

Meanwhile after this tour, Vasquez and his orchestra will be returning to Venezuela to work on repertoire. The orchestra works incredibly hard, with intense daily sessions and Vasquez said that in fact they enjoyed the work and seemed to want more not less rehearsal.  They are also planning a soloists festival amongst the orchestra's musicians, and are also training more young conductors.

Mendes comments about the small beginnings of El Sistema were made in the context of a question about the differences between the secure funding for El Sistema in Venezuela and the state of music education in England. Mendes pointed out that El Sistema developed as a result of hard work by Abreu and other educators and that the state did not suddenly start to finance it. The example of El Sistema opens up an invitation to countries like the UK to work in the same way and work with public funders.

El Sistema is more than a musical organisation, it is an engine of social change effected by musical activities. As soon as a child joins an El Sistema nucleo they are engaged through collective practice, playing with other children and they have their first performance within two or three weeks. Regular performances by the children helps to develop their self-esteem. The players of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra all started like this when very young, and Vasquez commented that their enthusiasm today remains the same. In fact, many of the players have been playing together for 12 or 13 years.

During the weekend, this sense of excitement extended to the children from the UK who were participating, some had never been out of their city before and some had not been on a train. The presence of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra and their ability to interact with the young people from the UK was an important incentive.

I caught the final performance of the weekend, the concert by Christian Vasquez and the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in the Royal Festival Hall at 5pm on Sunday 8 June. There are 170 members of the orchestra and a significant number of them were on the platform, I have never seen it so packed. In the first half the orchestra played Richard Strauss's Don Juan, Manuel de Falla's The Three-cornered Hat, Suite No.2 and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. For the Strauss and Falla in the first half the orchestra used quintuple woodwind, and for the Tchaikovsky, after some re-distribution of personnel, this was reduced to quadruple. The orchestra has a very good balance between girls and boys (something that was commented on during the press conference) and they all wear a uniform, grey suit, shirt and black tie for the boys, long black dress for the girls.

Vasquez conducted the entire concert from memory, and is clearly able to inspire and enthuse his players. One of the impressive things about the performance was the striking unanimity and delicacy of the performance, considering the large size of the performing body.

Vasquez started Don Juan at quite a speed and the orchestra responded brilliantly. The whole performance was notable not just for the notes, but for the sophistication of the sound that the group made. The Falla was performed with a superb rhythmic swing throughout and a real sense of enjoyment. Not only were there vibrant rhythms and confident solos, but some lovely delicate moments too. Vasquez ensure that the balance was very fine, with the harp and piano parts coming through as they should. This was a virtuoso technicolour performance which left you wishing that they had played the whole suite.

For the second half's performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B minor the young players demonstrated that they were well able to bring real sophistication to less highly coloured music. A slow introduction led to an explosion of vibrant passion for the first subject and a thrilling attack on the second subject. The main melody had a lovely sweep to it, and throughout we were treated to some lovely woodwind solos. It was great to see the woodwind young players swaying as they played, they like everyone else on the platform were deeply involved in the music. The second movement had a lovely sway to it with a fine light texture and a lovely singing tone from the cellos. We had to miss the final two movements (and the explosion of energy during the encores) because we were due at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Chelsea Opera Group's performance of Verdi's Stiffelio.

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