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Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, High Octane

José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema
The Washington debut appearance of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on Monday night, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society, was a Happening, with an audience filling the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to the brim, including the first tier, where we were seated. Thanks to over-the-top media coverage of this group's appearance at the Proms in 2007, as well as the feature on 60 Minutes and documentary, readers certainly know about El Sistema, the government program founded by José Abreu in the 1970s to help schoolchildren, especially the poorest of the poor, by giving them a chance to learn how to play classical music. The best things about the SBYO, the most widely known part of what El Sistema produces, are how it changes the lives of kids who come from nothing and how its performances draw other young people and their parents to their concerts.

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
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
The SBYO's sound has the qualities one would expect from players of advanced skill and relatively limited experience -- long on visceral energy but short on polish and subtlety. There was certainly no lack of fullness to the sound -- to accommodate the almost 200 players, the stage had to be extended a few feet into the house. Baton-wielding Wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel is the real thing, a savvy conductor with both a crystal-clear beat and a dynamic, attention-grabbing style, free from the score (he conducted from memory) and balletic in movement. Whether he can sustain that sort of excitement over the long term at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with professional players who are more likely to be jaded than students, remains to be seen (he is already in his second season as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra). Washington listeners will have the chance to hear how it turns out, when WPAS brings Dudamel and the L.A. Phil back to the area next season (May 17, 2010).

Other Articles:

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 orchestra's performances of European music were strong but not outstanding, beginning with the second suite of music from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. It was at times suave and French, but also punctuated by wild avian twitters in the first movement, and the extended flute solo in the second movement was capable but the tone did not blossom. This Ravel was at its best in the fast passages of the third movement, where Dudamel's gesture started to look like that of a band conductor, minimalized to short up and down, in a (mostly successful) attempt to keep the ensemble coherent. Even better suited to the group's edgy style was Stravinsky's score for The Rite of Spring, especially the raucous wind solos (like the elemental bass clarinet) and the driving rhythmic passages and daunting cross-rhythms. It was one of the loudest and most clashing performances of the work ever to reach my ears, which is certainly not to say that it was the best. Shortcomings abounded, like the disjointed high-register bassoon solo that famously opens the work, one of many examples of individual weaknesses across the orchestra, if they are held to professional standards.

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.

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