In tune with the have-nots

In tune with the have-nots

By Harry Eyres

Published: October 9 2010 00:26 | Last updated: October 9 2010 00:26

An orchestra
The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, playing in Bonn last month

I didn’t expect that going to hear the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela rehearse and play at the Beethovenfest in Bonn would give me a new perspective, not just on Beethoven but also on wealth and poverty and the divide between the haves and have-nots. Many of the teenagers in this orchestra (a younger version of the better-known Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela) come from the poor barrios of Caracas: what we would call slums, lacking basic amenities and privacy.

No wonder the kids I spoke to were so impressed by what they called the “beautiful” city of Bonn, where the Porsches and Mercedes glide through wide and well-ordered avenues, but where, from the deathly silence that reigns on the streets, you might think an invisible plague had killed the inhabitants.

But these kids obviously have something. In fact, what they have impressed the respectable burghers of Bonn so much that 1,600 of them rose to their feet after a concert consisting of the Fifth Symphonies of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and then gave themselves up to delirious and quite un-middle-aged clapping and swaying as the orchestra launched into six encores.

But one has to be careful here, to avoid straying into the territory of clichés about exuberant Latin warmth versus the Protestant work ethic. The day before the concert took place in the Beethovenhalle, I headed off to the Tannenbusch Gymnasium on the outskirts of Bonn, where a group of the Venezuelans had teamed up with the school orchestra. The young Germans were in no doubt who were the superiors in work ethic and discipline. “They are so much better than we are; they can sight-read what it takes us weeks to learn,” said a tall German double-bass player called Nina.

The Tannenbusch orchestra conductor confirmed that his young pupils had everything to learn from the Venezuelans’ professional approach to music-making, the sheer high standard of their musicianship.

This is not altogether surprising, given that the kids who are part of Venezuela’s world-famous Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, founded by José Antonio Abreu, spend on average three hours a day practising and playing.

It is a strange paradox that a system as far-reaching and life-changing as Abreu’s, which eminent conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado have called “the future of music” and “the most important thing happening in the world of classical music”, could probably only have got off the ground in a country as relatively poor as Venezuela.

Abreu, one of the great visionaries in times so lacking in vision, founded El Sistema as “a social-communitarian project”. From the beginning, 37 years ago, when El Sistema got going informally in a garage in Caracas, Abreu saw it as a way not just of making music but of imparting values: in particular, the values of solidarity, team spirit, and the pursuit of excellence.

But it is wrong to think that music is just a means to the end of social advancement; music is also an ideal and a model in itself, the only activity, as Abreu beautifully puts it, dedicated to generating harmony; not just musical harmony but essential human harmony. “When a child can play an instrument, he or she is no longer poor.”

Amazingly, Abreu has managed not just to keep El Sistema going through nearly four decades of drastic political upheavals (no doubt destined to continue) but to embed it into the foundations of the state.

His vision now extends beyond Venezuela. There is already an Ibero-American Youth Orchestra, covering the whole of South America; there are small, pilot projects in countries as diverse as Scotland, South Africa and Germany; Abreu sees no reason why El Sistema should not go global: a whole world where every small town has a children’s and a youth orchestra.

Some might argue that we already have youth orchestras and music education (though we have been cutting the latter in the UK). What is so special about these Venezuelans?

The answer was there to be heard in Bonn (and can be heard in London next week when the TCYOV plays two concerts as part of the Shell Classic International Series at the Southbank Centre). It is not that an orchestra such as TCYOV under its 26-year-old conductor Christian Vásquez plays Beethoven’s Fifth better than the brilliant British National Youth Orchestra or a professional band such as the Kammer-philharmonie Bremen. But it plays differently.

We have become over-sophisticated, thinking that what is important is playing Beethoven with valveless horns, gut strings or daringly small forces. But TCYOV, all 165 members of it, all 13 double basses, play not with gut strings but with guts.

They have the power to remind me – and other middle-aged people no doubt – what we felt when we first heard Beethoven’s Fifth, how overwhelmed and in love with it we were. “I adore Beethoven,” said a 16-year-old cellist called Carmen, who broke down in tears when she visited Beethoven’s birth-house. “How would you not play this music with passion?”

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

FT.com / Weekend Columnists / Harry Eyres – In tune with the have-nots

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