Is the party over?

[06/09/2016] It was good to see Richard Morrison’s review in The Times linking the SBSO’s Proms performance to current events in Venezuela (see below for full text). I don’t think this is something that music critics have to do all the time, but to churn out the usual “South American fiesta” clichés in the midst of such a crisis, as Ivan Hewett did in The Telegraph (predictably enough), is simply indefensible.

As Morrison could tell, the fiesta is somewhat past its peak. He noted that “the surges of collective ebullience that galvanised their concerts a decade ago were largely absent.” Indeed, levels of contentment in the orchestra are reportedly sinking, as members look one way to see their wealthy conductor living a charmed life in Hollywood (and making sure they know about it), and the other way to their family and friends struggling with chronic shortages and instability in Venezuela. There has been notably less fanfare on this tour from cheerleaders and the musicians themselves on social media; perhaps they’re saving every euro of their daily allowance to take back home, or perhaps they’ve realized that conspicuous consumption isn’t a good look for government employees in the midst of an economic crisis. Either way, the ebullience has somewhat dimmed.

Morrison was somewhat unimpressed by the opening piece, by Paul Desenne, but perhaps he should have been glad just to spot this rarest of rare birds – new Venezuelan orchestral music being performed. Recently, Venezuelan composers were complaining once again about their longstanding neglect by their orchestral compatriots, El Sistema prominent among them. The article in El Nacional newspaper was entitled “The forgotten notes of Venezuelan composers.” Interestingly, Desenne was one of those quoted. He doesn’t appear to have many illusions about his token status with the SBSO.

According to the article, programs are dominated by the likes of Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky – all fine music, but hardly trailblazing for South America’s most famous orchestra. When present, Venezuelan music is usually represented by one of two warhorses: “Cantata criolla” and “Glosa sinfónica margariteña,” by the deceased Antonio Estévez and Inocente Carreño respectively. “We composers are forgotten artists in Venezuelan musical society,” said the Director of Culture of the Simón Bolívar University, Diana Arismendi. “Millions of bolívares have been spent on music and the investment in composition is zero.”

As ever, there are hidden stories beneath even the more perceptive journalistic responses. This year, the flow of resignations and departures from El Sistema, including its most privileged strata, has increased. Some of the program’s best-known players have had enough, whether of El Sistema or Venezuela or both. The same is also true behind the scenes. While the Sistema press office and most international journalists continue to present the program as a bubble of happiness, inspiration, and hope, that bubble seems to be bursting from the external pressure, and numerous employees are voting with their feet or talking about doing so. You wouldn’t notice this unless you’re pretty familiar with the program; one advantage of training up a hundred times as many musicians as you need is that you’ll never end up with gaps in the show orchestras, which is all that most people see.

Is the party over? It’s hard to know. The demand still seems to be there from international audiences and the music industry, and the oversupply of musicians means that El Sistema is well placed to meet it. But back home in Venezuela, not many people are partying, and it would be brave to predict a bright future for a state foundation within such a beleaguered state, for a vast and vastly expensive symphony orchestra program in a country where even middle-class people are struggling to find enough food to eat.


Prom 67: Simón Bolívar SO/Dudamel at the Albert Hall

The Venezuelans’ surges of collective ebullience that galvanised their concerts a decade ago were absent

Is the party over for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra? Fêted for so long, the Venezuelans produced respectable playing in this Prom under Gustavo Dudamel’s direction, but the surges of collective ebullience that galvanised their concerts a decade ago were largely absent.

Instead, we heard diligent performances of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No 2 and Villa-Lobos’s rarely played Bachianas Brasileiras No 2, which proved an attractive soundscape of smoochy, saxophone-led melodies, culminating in an evocative portrait of a chugging steam train. Though written nearly 90 years ago, it sounded far fresher than a new Venezuelan piece — Paul Desenne’s Hipnosis mariposa, which meandered along in innocuous five-in-a-bar homage to a popular song. You would never have guessed from this bland effort that Venezuela is in the grip of an existential financial, social and human-rights crisis.

The final work was Ravel’s La Valse, an apocalyptic post-1918 depiction of European civilisation collapsing into anarchy. Did it cross the players’ minds to apply the symbolism to their own country? Knowing how tight is the political discipline imposed by El Sistema, I doubt it.