Inside the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra

In August 2007 I was part of the audience of thousands that crammed into the Royal Albert Hall for the electrifying Proms debut by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. “Was this the greatest Prom of all time?” asked the Telegraph’s arts editor. As I left the hall afterwards, not just impressed but exhilarated, I decided to study this phenomenon.

Last week, the orchestra was back in town (with the “Youth” now “Symphony”), but much as I loved my earlier experience, I didn’t go back for more. What I have learnt in the meantime would have detracted too much from my enjoyment.

During a year of research in Venezuela, I discovered that most of the orchestra’s members were not from deeply deprived backgrounds, despite widespread belief to the contrary overseas, and they were also paid more than most professional orchestral musicians. Their nouveau riche status saw the Sistema slogan “tocar y luchar” (to play and to struggle) tweaked to “tocar y cobrar” (to play and to get paid). However, they had few rights, and their grueling and unpredictable rehearsal schedule led to mutterings about exploitation; the band was nicknamed the Venezuelan Slave Orchestra. Constant overseas touring meant that it was easier to see the orchestra in Europe or North America than a provincial city in Venezuela, raising the question of whom it was actually for. With its core repertoire of great European symphonies, the SBSO did not seem to be breaking many molds. Peering beneath the shiny surface, it represented less the future of classical music than its past with an appealing makeover.

This week I had the opportunity to interview another of the SBSO’s musicians, just before its London shows. Andrés provides an eye-opening glimpse behind the PR façade of one of the world’s most celebrated orchestras, one that strikes many chords with my earlier interviews with current and former members.

He describes a divided orchestra and an oppressive atmosphere, claiming that bullying, discrimination, favouritism, and internal competition are rife. Even a member of the orchestra who was put on the spot – and on the record – by a journalist publicly admitted: “It’s like American football — to be on a team, you have to have extreme discipline. The coach doesn’t say please and thank you.”

When I ask Andrés about the imparting of values, he replies “values come from the home.” He alleges that El Sistema teaches children “anti-values,” raising them from a young age in “a hostile atmosphere” in which “a youth orchestra director humiliates you in front of the rest for not being able to play a section or being out of tune. This makes children afraid of playing on their own and lowers their self-esteem as they are mocked in front of their friends. But in the Bolívar B [SBSO] it’s another level, and that’s why leave of absence keeps being granted to young musicians who are said to be ‘burnt out.’ Before they get to that point, they may get what happened to X, who was mocked, hit, put down, and who knows what else by his fellow musicians, who always looked for a way to make him feel bad and unloaded on him all the rage they had stored up for having been victims of the same mistreatment.”

The SBSO might be seen as taking the negative aspects of the orchestral profession to an extreme, rather than representing the shining beacon of classical music that is so commonly imagined overseas. Foreign audiences believe that the orchestra rescues young people from poverty and crime. “That’s just propaganda that they put out in those sensationalist documentaries that are full of lies. Sure, there are people from different social strata, but the propaganda in those films makes us look to the world as though we were all thieves and drug addicts and El Sistema rescued us.” Indeed, the orchestra appears as an ineffective way of reforming behaviour: “There’s a group of musicians that are known for being disorganized and irresponsible drunkards.”

Democracy and meritocracy are notable by their absence. “If Y likes you then perhaps you might try to offer an opinion, but if he doesn’t like you then you’re going to have a problem, without question.” The musicians believe their world to be opaque and morally questionable, ruled by influence and string-pulling. “For years I’ve been hearing stories and anecdotes about the people who come into the orchestra, and it does happen that if you’re a relative of so-and-so they put you in the orchestra. In the case of women, you hear a lot of ‘they let her in because she gave the jury something that he or they wanted.’”

A heavy but disorganized rehearsal schedule, subject to constant last-minute changes, keeps musicians tied to the orchestra and away from many other activities. Many are so tired from long hours of rehearsals and touring that they don’t have the desire to get too involved in potentially more rewarding activities such as chamber music. They are highly trained orchestral musicians but many don’t know how to do anything else and don’t have much time to learn, so however dissatisfied they may be, their alternatives are limited.

The lack of flexibility and mobility around the top of El Sistema causes some frustrated musicians to leave Venezuela in search of better opportunities. But “once these young people leave the country they don’t have the option of going back to the orchestra because they are declared to be enemies of El Sistema and their life is made impossible.”

Andrés is cynical about the marriage of convenience between El Sistema’s conservative founder, José Antonio Abreu, and socialist presidents Chávez and Maduro. He understands the logic of the deal – lavish funding exchanged for a burnished image on the global stage – but retains little respect for any of the parties involved, and he was particularly critical of Dudamel’s links with prominent Chavistas. Certainly, this alliance has upset people on both sides of the political spectrum. A number on the Left are dismayed by the actions of a government that is supposedly committed to prioritising indigenous, Afro-descendent, and popular culture. Government critics, meanwhile, accuse Abreu and Dudamel of collaborationism and providing a fig leaf for a repressive regime, regularly alluding to Herbert von Karajan and the Nazis.

With Maduro’s popularity now sliding along with oil prices and the Venezuelan economy, El Sistema’s close ties to the government are coming under increasing scrutiny. Andrés predicts that “El Sistema will go down in history as Venezuela’s largest social movement, which grew with Chávez and died with Chavismo.”

Andrés is a pseudonym.

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