El Sistema • White Hands Choir
The Calligraphy of Song
Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Detail - click image to see entire photo.
Had I not been cajoled and convinced that I absolutely had to see the El Sistema Coro de Manos Blancos—the White Hands Choir, I would have missed it, and if I hadn’t missed it on the program, I might have dismissed it. A double choir of deaf and handicapped children may be a good story for daytime TV, and a splendid example of the core of the work that El Sistema does (which is far more important than cranking out a few good musicians and enthusiastic orchestras), but it’s not a musically compelling proposition, and it’s not something this cynical cad feels inclined to. Some sort of Venezuelan Jazz hands and John Rutter have, on paper, very limited appeal.
I’m so glad I went. The sight of the White Hands Choir’s members strutting and clambering up on the stage of the Mozarteum’s Great Hall for their first of two concerts on August 8th, from tiny little deaf kids in the white-gloved section to the teen- and tween- majority of both choirs, and a select few elder ones largely in the handicapped choir, was so damn heartening, the cynicism had no chance to last more than 30 seconds. Even John Rutter’s Ave Maria, the opening bit, became touching in this form. Still tripe, but touching tripe*.
To see the enthusiasm, the eagerness, the skill and ability, the pride and devotion of these two groups, the handicapped one of which sings and the hearing impaired one of which acts out the songs simultaneously, in a kind of stylized sign-language-like choreography, has transformative qualities that go well beyond the considerable quality of the actual musical output, very high though it is.
The visual spectacle of the white-gloved interpretative section, especially, has entrancing qualities. Although not actually translations of the songs’ text—or even words, they communicate in an easily perceptible language. And seeing some fifty kids do this all at once, in unison, makes one appreciate how each of them have different levels of flair and panache and expressiveness. Just as there are different accents and pronunciations and inflections and levels of eloquence among those who use their voice to communicate, these artists have different accents and physical intonations. One of the young ladies up front had such mesmerizing articulation, that it was hard to look anywhere else: communicating with everything body part from her pollical distal phalanges (the tips of her thumbs, to save you the wiki-trip) to the sway of an arm, the bend of a knee, the cocking of her head, a glint of her eyes, it was almost as if she conducted the music, and not the two directors Naybeth García (for the choreographing section) and Luis Chinchilla (for the singers) up front. A professional dancer couldn’t have displayed a more refined extension of limbs, or motions more thoroughly ‘moved-through’ and fully extended.
A few crooning numbers for small ensemble, maracas, and cuatro stirred the already moved audience further into ecstatic salvos of applause, and when the white gloves got to doo-wop and bee-bop along, it sounded a bit like a gaggle of musically aspiring (and inspiring) hens. Cute, with self-aware cheek and pluck. Amid the South American sections, there was also Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which must have been a particular moving moment for the young chorus members, most of which have never been far away from Venezuela, never mind in Europe. And there they were, singing Mozart in the city of Mozart, in the splendor of the Mozarteum, at the most important music festival there is (pace Proms): unlikely heroes, cheered frenetically by an audience—among them an enthusiastic Plácido Domingo and a proud José Antonio Abreu—that had surrendered themselves entirely to the performance. Increasingly applause was mingled with the hand-wiggling which is the primary way for deaf people to give and receive applause… starting and spreading around groups of audience members in the know.
A nice and short concert this was planned to be, without intermission less than an hour. But there was still applause, mingled with encores, some ninety minutes after the show had gotten under way. At this point, there was scarcely a dry eye on stage as the chorus members wept, overwhelmed by joy and momentousness… and the audience members that weren’t busy wildly waving and clapping until the last of the White Hand Choir’s kids had gotten off stage were dabbing at their faces with the nearest handkerchief in reach.
(*Nothing like the rather uncoordinated rehearsal footage and more like this, Athos Palma’s Gloria, filmed rather illegally at one of the two Salzburg concerts and also put up on YouTube.)