José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema
The group makes listening to classical music exciting, in a superficial way that is easier for some people to appreciate, and as a result the median age of Monday night's audience was likely about thirty years younger than a typical one in that venue. The dress rehearsal earlier in the day was attended by some two thousand other listeners, 800 of them students. The SBYO would be a remarkable youth orchestra under any circumstances, but that many of the students served by El Sistema are in effect rescued from lives of desperate poverty makes this ensemble something of a miracle. After the remarkable testimony given by Linda Ronstadt before Congress last week, one can only hope that some serious thought is being given to adapting the program to serve the poorest kids in American public schools. In related news, José Abreu has won the TED Prize this year, with a plan to partner with the New England Conservatory of Music to investigate how to adapt the Venezuelan program to American schools and the larger world.
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Anne Midgette, The Bolívar Youth Orchestra, A Force to Be Reckoned With (Washington Post, April 8)
T. L. Ponick, Youthful Venezuelans thrill (Washington Times, April 8)
Tim Smith, Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra deliver incendiary performance at Kennedy Center (Clef Notes, April 8)
Tim Padgett, Venezuela's Famed Youth Orchestra Visits U.S. (TIME, April 6)
Mark Swed, Linda Ronstadt hails Gustavo Dudamel in testimony on Capitol Hill (Culture Monster, April 1)
Sue Fox, Conductor Gustavo Dudamel brings El Sistema to the world (The Times, March 28)
The best part of the program, in fact, was a relatively unknown work, Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, by Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos. Blogger Bob Shingleton has criticized the SBYO for not programming Venezuelan music, and on the basis of their fine performance of this work, it is something that does seem like a much more natural fit for the group than Ravel or Stravinsky. The challenges of the composition for a European orchestra, especially the complicated folk music rhythmic patterns, seemed to come naturally to the Venezuelans. After the Stravinsky, the concert shed all pretense of being anything other than a rock extravaganza, as the lights went out and the orchestra appeared again in their signature jackets bearing the colors of the Venezuelan flag. One encore, the final movement of Alberto Ginastera's Estancia, was followed inevitably (prompted by shouts of "Mambo!" from the audience, as if yelling out "Light My Fire!" to The Doors) by Leonard Bernstein's Mambo movement from Symphonic Dances, shown in the YouTube video below when it made such an impact at the 2007 Proms. As if to reinforce the rock music comparison, the players then stripped off their jackets and threw them into the crowd.
L. Bernstein, Mambo, Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, 2007 Proms
One final matter requires discussion and that is the political undercurrent of this concert. As you know, Ionarts is explicitly NOT about politics, and that is why the intrusion of political situations into the arts makes me particularly uncomfortable. True, El Sistema and the SBYO predate the Hugo Chávez regime currently in power in Venezuela, and Chávez does not openly associate himself with the image of the orchestra, but as Bob Shingleton has also pointed out, it is impossible not to think of the good will generated by the fawning coverage of the SBYO as being a whitewash for what Chávez is doing in Venezuela.
For me, this has nothing to do with Chávez's anti-American obsession, especially against the recently departed Bush administration, or even the expulsion of U.S. ambassadors from Venezuela and Bolivia last fall. It has much more to do with the steps Chávez is trying to take to become a lifelong dictator, through an increasing crackdown on freedom of speech and democracy in his own country. Ironically, given the image of the young musicians of the SBYO, it is student political movements in Venezuela that have so far posed any real threat to Chávez's power. The timing of the Summit of the Americas, looming next week, makes it impossible not to feel some revulsion at the encore portion of the SBYO's program, as they splashed themselves in the colors of the Venezuelan flag. I appear to have been the only one bothered by it: even the reviewer for the Washington Times proclaimed the concert "propaganda-free."
The next concert in the classical music series from Washington Performing Arts Society features the Tokyo String Quartet and cellist Lynn Harrell (April 17, 8 pm) at Strathmore.