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The age of Enlightenment

Venezuela’s thrilling youth ensemble proves to be far more than a novelty act

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Rather improbably, the Venezuelan youth orchestra named after an Enlightenment freedom fighter has stunned the music world with its success. The system, El Sistema, which produced it and 150 others in Venezuela, has not only got kids playing musical instruments, it has also recruited some of them from the slums. Some of the players are former gangsters, apparently. In London this past week, they made the front page of the Times in their red-yellow-and-blue blousons as they twice sold out the Royal Festival Hall.

This is no small chamber orchestra. The players almost overflowed the stage, with violinists nine-deep. How they managed to dance during the encores without knocking the music stands flying is a mystery. That’s when they don those jackets, only to throw them off again and into the crowd like triumphant footballers, usually after their calling-card encore, Bernstein’s brassy, thrilling Mambo.

Some people think that’s all they play. But they brought Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and three South American composers: Revueltas, Estévez and Castellanos. The ambassadors, all under 21, sense the most complicated rhythms as easily as Latin dances under their charismatic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, himself an El Sistema product. They lean forward into the beat, which pulses visibly through the ranks.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra suits them with its darting Hungarian pulse, long folk melodies and roles for numerous wind soloists. There was not a single unsynchronised entry. In the magical second movement, “Games of the Couples”, the duets snaked their bubbling phrases with parallel, sinewy contortions. In the delicate, quick movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, Dudamel stopped conducting with his arms, stood still and nodded in the entries, demonstrating at once both matchless control and how intense an undemonstrative beat can be. Each pizzicato pinged as one, though 90 musicians played it.

The orchestra’s tone colour is vibrant, variegated and exciting, though it just lacks that deep patina which comes from years of playing. The strings burn like a power generator, the violas bowing with sad warmth the melody of the Bartók finale, the double-bassists sawing a meaty throb as they stand at the back looking slightly menacing in dark suits and ties. One of them has been snapped up by the Berlin Philharmonic. In my memory, they are wearing sunglasses. In fact it was they who started the concert with their gripping Bartók statement to a hushed hall.

The brasses blazed brilliantly, the muted trumpets were like Caracas car horns and the eight French horns sounded with arresting solemnity as they rang out the fate melody at the opening of the Tchaikovsky. Even the piccolo player made an impression in Bartók’s core slow movement. He didn’t pierce as he usually does, but blew a gentle butterfly.

The key to the orchestra’s success is in the age of the musicians. The tendency in classical music is to think “the older, the better”, and that a youth group is somehow second-rate. Technically there is nothing these 20-year-olds cannot do and, galvanised into the tightest ensemble by the young master in front of them, they become the most beautiful, large, artistic act on the planet. A similar situation once pertained in British singing. Fifty years ago the cathedral choirs were full of grumpy, old, bearded men with a limited repertoire and reluctance to change. Then choirmasters noticed how much more amenable, keen and able the students from the local university were. Best of all, no one stayed for more than three years.

Now these choirs are the best in the world. There is nothing more exhilarating than the inspiration of youth.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek