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Notes from the 2013 Salzburg Festival ( 14 )
El Sistema • Ntl. Children’s Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle

El Sistema • Ntl. Children’s Symphony Orchestra & Simon Rattle

Pint-sized Mahler

All pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli. Details - click image to see entire photo.

Eighteen (!) double basses, about the size of a cello on PEDs, were bound to make up with quantity for what they lacked in volume. As did the gusto with which the pint-sized bass-steersboys and steersgirls of the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela dug into their instruments for their concert of Gershwin, Ginastera, and Mahler on August 10th. Tuning took a little longer with the orchestra of six to 13-year olds, as instrumental group after group took their cue from the clarinet, making a cacophonous racket in the process, at the end of which one benevolently assumed, rather than heard, that the results would be the desired one.

available at Amazon
G.Mahler, Symphony No.1,
R.Kubelik / BRSO

Then Simon Rattle hopped onto the stage of the Felsenreitschule and lounged into a Gershwin Cuban Overture that had the percussion section bongo-ing with delight, and the double basses sway from side to side… albeit a little too ostentatiously to be spontaneous. When they did the same in Ginastera’s Estancia Dances, led by a coæval conductor—Jesús Parra—it became even more obvious how this pseudo-spontaneous physical expression of rhythm is really just a studied gimmick across all the El Sistema orchestras and one that gets old almost immediately. Young Parra, meanwhile, went for these dances tightly and aggressively in “Los trabajadores agrícolas”, then led a slow movement that showed the brass’ potential, but also their lack of experience: One section, where it is decidedly harder to make up with enthusiasm for lack of years and years of practice.

Sir Simon didn’t mind, and there was palpable joy in his reign over these 150-some kids, giving clear and useful entries to each section and supporting the little players in every other imaginable way to give a performance that was sharp and dazzling… and only the wind section sounded rather more cubist than I remember the work to go. At the center of it, there was a splendid performance of a clarinetist who, though no older than 10, deservingly delighted in the spotlight like a veteran showman. At their best, the first violins were together every bit as much (and perhaps more) than any professional orchestra could be expected to be, at 11.30 in the morning.

Mahler’s First Symphony was the main course, under Simon Rattle again, who has been conducting this orchestra in this program for several years now. The strings held a steady pianissimo through the long, near-misty opening, slowed down and Rattle keenly made sure that not too many entries were missed. Just as the expectations had been lowered a bit, the second movement raised them again with splendid rawness, raspy double basses, and saucy bassoons that brought out lines that I’ve never quite noticed like that: humorous ones, perfectly in line with the widely known fact that the bassoon is of course the silliest instrument in an orchestra—it’s clown with oversized shoes and a red nose.

Another highlight was the double bass solo on “Frère Jacques”, which was meant to lie uncomfortably for the poor performer, and presumably was intended by Mahler to sound like a constant tightrope walk. Nowadays double bass players are so good, that most orchestra’s principal bassists (or even anyone from the section) could play it securely, soundly, beautifully, and maybe even with closed eyes. That’s not the intention, one reckons, of the composer, but it’s difficult to tell a bassist either not to prepare for it, or play it slightly off. In this case, such instruction wasn’t necessary: 34 colleague-eyes hung transfixed on their section leader as he nervously swerved through the bit, with earnest sweat and the tiniest hint of terror… producing exactly that high-wire act that I am looking for, while still getting through it flawlessly.

That a woman who had passed out, was carried all along the front of the stage to the exit, just as the players performed the funeral procession of the animals, had a macabre aptness to it... Directly after thus illustrating the drama,  the lady in question, thankfully, recovered.

While the whole affair was special as an event, as a gesture, and great to watch, strictly musically speaking it wasn’t going to be—and wasn’t—revelatory… even though Mahler himself probably never (or not very often) heard his First Symphony performed better. For all its very real qualities, this (or any other) children’s orchestra cannot compete on a technical level with excellent youth orchestras, which are often on par with their professional peers and altogether a happier compromise between skill, expertise, experience, and the unbridled, uncynical enthusiasm youngsters bring to the music. The Salzburg audience knew how to put it all into perspective and fell itself into unbridled enthusiasm when they showered the orchestra with applause the like of which on the White Hands Choir saw.