Sounds Venezuela

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A sneaky peek into a rehearsal by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra

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Simon Bolivar Orchestra

Photo: Belinda Lawley

‘Large, ambitious, refined,’ these are the words of José Antonio Abreu, envisaging how culture could help the socially disadvantaged. His vision of a musical education system that could revolutionise the fortunes of Venezuelan children stuck in poverty was powerful. And those three adjectives could well also describe El Sistema’s flagship group, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Crammed on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall, this orchestra is definitely large – I can count 14 double basses, at least 8 desks of first violins, and 8 horns. Ambitious? In a sense: the first concert of the orchestra's Southbank Centre residency this month takes in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the second concert Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Refined? Their morning rehearsal kicks off with Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the spotlight turned on each section in turn. Their playing is virtuosic, exuberant and, yes, refined.

I’m here, along with a good number of other journalists, many of whom have brought their children, for a sneaky peek of one of the orchestra’s rehearsals. It’s 10.30am on a Saturday morning, and the Royal Festival Hall is already busy with people and full of music. For four days, the Southbank Centre is being turned into a ‘nucleo’ – the name given to the musical education centres that form the El Sistema network across Venezuela. The Stockwell Children's Orchestra – part of the In Harmony programme in Lambeth, one of three current projects in England taking inspiration from El Sistema – had opened the nucleo that morning. Dressed in bright blue T-shirts, a large orchestra played an assortment of arrangements, including one with In Harmony’s chairman as soloist, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. It looked, and sounded, like they were having great fun. And the celebration of music-making by children continues until Tuesday with a non-stop programme of workshops, performances and open rehearsals.

Of course, how classical music is, can, even should be, used for social change is a vast, fascinating subject, and one that it’s hard to begin to explore adequately in a short blog article. But the arrival of the Simon Bolivar Symphony – no longer Youth – Orchestra on the international stage as an ensemble to rival the world’s greatest is an impressive example of how art can change lives. Although the rehearsal was all in Spanish, and for the most part was not much more than a run-through, it was interesting to observe the easy atmosphere of an orchestra whose members have grown up together, and thrilling to hear their terrific performance of the Young Person’s Guide. There’s a moment in the final fiendish fugue when Purcell’s majestic theme returns in the brass, rising above the already breakneck counterpoint. It’s a hard passage to pull off, but, under Dudamel’s baton, was rock solid, the theme's momentum unstoppable. Somehow, there seemed to be something symbolic in that.