The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

Simon Bolivar 1

by Rob Tomaro

It was a wet Thursday morning. Twenty thousand kids descended upon this vast sports arena. Not for Miley. Not for sports. For Tchaikovsky. For Rossini. Their parents had paid for them to come to hear a symphony orchestra. To hear. To listen. No explosions. No tanks transforming into monsters. Rossini. How was such a thing possible?

The place bristled with cameras on giant dollies. Somebody, somewhere, was pouring out a great deal of money in the hopes of turning this into a TV special and the Emcee was on the mike ten minutes before showtime trying valiantly to program them to be quiet when the cameras rolled. They were already jumping up and down in their seats. "We're filming this for TV, everyone!!" Good luck, pal. There's twenty thousand of them and one of you. Why do I hear Pink Floyd faintly in the background? But, he was doing his best: "Hey, kids. Let's practice silence!!" ("Hey, teacher. Leave those kids alone.")

He was asking for exactly what we don't want. If more symphony concerts had the atmosphere of a rock show, we'd have more kids at concerts and we could stop having the same dumb debate about the graying of the audience in classical music. The orchestra filed on in good order, resplendent in their multi-colored "Venezuela" windbreakers. Most of these kids were from the poorest sections of their country. You could tell how proud they were of those jackets. Having read the history of El Sistema, I was well aware of what they had to go through to get to that stage. One girl, about 14, who lived in the most drug and gang infested neighborhood in Caracas, was on her way to rehearsal and was accidentally shot in the leg went she walked into a drug deal gone bad. The wound didn't seem to faze her much, but she was furious at having missed rehearsal. That's who these kids are.

Gustavo Dudamel, recently appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the face of El Sistema, the first artist to pop out of the top into international super stardom. But he wasn't there. The concert was to be conducted by five fledgling maestros in training. Hmm, I wondered, how would they stack up to the charismatic Mr. Dudamel? Well, it seems the Sistema works. Each of them were excellent, demonstrating the deep level of musical understanding, stick technique and empathy with the players that had brought Dudamel to the world stage.

The first conductor, Manuel Jurado, did Rossini's "William Tell Overture." The second, Christian Vasquez, did Castellanos' " Santa Cruz de Pacairigua." The best, though, was the third conductor, Diego Gusman, who conducted the very demanding (and long) "Francesca da Rimini" of Tchaikovsky. His stick was firm but pliant. The legato line expressed in the left hand was, really, poetic. Keep your eye on this young man. He's going places.

I closed my eyes about every minute or so to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. I defy anyone to tell me this is a "youth" orchestra. It's a very good regional orchestra, playing extremely well. They all just happen to be about fifteen.

The encore was their party piece, the mambo from Bernstein's "West Side Story", during which they all run around and dance while they play. I've seen it several times and I still find it vibrant and cool. It may be a gimmick but it comes from the heart. It comes from who they are and it's wonderful.

During the curtain call, when all five Maestri were called back to the stage, some of the musicians started throwing their "Venezuela" jackets into the audience. I found myself caught up in an instantly formed mosh pit. Kids streamed down from the rafters to catch these things. It was just delightful.

Turns out, the emcee needn't have worried and fretted so. To my astonishment, twenty thousand kids sat riveted in their seats for a ninety-minute symphony concert. No fluff pieces. No "Star Wars." They just loved it. Somebody must have forgotten to tell them symphony music is boring. The emcee breathed a sigh of relief backstage, we are sure. (No dark sarcasm in the classroom, please.)

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*El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education program in Venezuela, originally called Social Action for Music. Its official name is Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, (Fesnojiv), and sometimes translated to English as "National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela"). Fesnojiv is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela's 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. Fesnojiv (which Venezuelans refer to as La Orquesta or El Sistema) has 30 symphony orchestras. But its greatest achievement are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90 percent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.