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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 1 )
El Sistema • Youth Orchestra of Caracas

El Sistema • Youth Orchestra of Caracas

Great Shostakovich, Gruesome Propaganda

Since the unstoppable rise of Gustavo Dudamel, Venezuela’s Orchestra Academy El Sistema (FESNOJIV) has become a brand. The Simón Bolivar Orchestra (SBO) became its flagship and Dudamel is the brand ambassador. A strong presence at this year’s Salzburg Festival, El Sistema is present with seven branches: four orchestras, a chorus, and two ensembles. The SBO, three genuine youth orchestras—the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, and the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble, the Simón Bolivar String Quartet, and the Simón Bolivar National Youth Choir.

On July 28th, it was the Youth Orchestra of Caracas that played in the Felsenreitschule in a romantic-fireworks program of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. With oodles of their young colleagues from the other ensembles in attendance (Dudamel among them), the Felsenreitschule was packed with a historic number of dashing young men and gorgeous, tan ladies: A marvelous spot of color amid the Salzburg-usual chalky gray white with wafts of formaldehyde.

Shostakovich’s fanfare-besotted Festive Overture, with its bloated pomposity, is an ideal work to just let it rip in… any too serious take on it would fatally expose its grave flaws as one of DSCH’s most hollow works; right down there with Beethoven’s Wellington's Victory. As was, played to the happy hilt by a 150+ strong sea of young eagerness, it was a rather wonderful curtain-raiser to one of DSCH’s finest orchestral works, the easily underrated, expectation-crushing Ninth Symphony. The snap and crackle, stop-and-go, the childish joy and toy-shop character (a sardonic toy shop, with Shostakovich, but still…) was properly torn into by the horde of Venezuelan youngsters, with frankly amazing  accuracy in the bloated string section. The guest that seems to come naturally to youth orchestras (Venezuelan or not), suited this First movement like a glove.

available at Amazon
P.I.Tchaikovsky, Sy. 5,
A.Nelsons / CBSO

available at Amazon
D.Schostakovich, Sy. 9
(+ 'faked' Mravinsky 5th),
Z.Kosler/ Czech PO
Chant du Monde

The slowly swaying second movement, drained of vivaciousness, was no less masterly performed, with the brass and wind showing what they could do in well-behaved mezzo piano and below. Ditto the electric, buzzing Presto, a helter-skelter concerto for orchestra with a fabulous trumpeter sticking out at the back. The equally marvelous bassoonist guided through the lamenting Largo, amid the brassy, threatening trombones… right into the tomfoolery of the Allegretto Finale with its polka-dancing bears and clowns on tricycles.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 was tinted with snarling brass and produced beautiful mass-pianissimos under the guiding hands of El Sistema product Dietrich Paredes. The cloying Tchaikovsky—down to the comically charicature of a romantic-symphonic ending—was swept aside in favor of an all-embracing, irresistible Tchaikovsky—mildly, briefly marred only in the Valse, when a first few concentration-lapses surfaced.

A wonderful concert, rightly rewarded by standing ovations which, had it ended then and there, would have been a subtle victory of culturally diplomacy on the strength of its music-making. But it wasn’t to be. Out came the lazy but effective encores. Out came the choreographed instrument swinging-and-twirling, the coordinated spontaneous swaying and dancing and the clap-along bits. Out came even the propaganda jackets which were finally tossed into the grateful, over-the-moon audience. It was a breathtakingly cynical, and crude display of political instrumentalization, which might have been genuine the first time around, many years back, but is scripted and calculating now. (Even the Red Army Chorus in the Kennedy Center was more subtle, back when they invaded Afghanistan). Let’s assume—for sanity’s sake—that it was all dedicated to the political prisoners in Venezuela, suppressed journalists, and the victims of state-graft and massive government corruption. Alas, it wasn’t, and even more sadly: the audience swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Pictures above and below courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli