The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra gave two concerts in London this month as part of its 40th anniversary European tour. I read all the local reviews I could find. While Venezuelan newspapers focused on the enthusiastic audience response, London’s music critics painted a rather different picture. A couple were impressed, but most of the reviews were mixed; the average rating was around 3.5 – a significant decline since the orchestra’s 5-star debut in 2007.
Richard Morrison, writing in the Times, noted that the concerts – focused on works by Beethoven, Mahler, and Wagner – were little different to what one might hear any night of the week from one of London’s five orchestras. He concluded: “That the most enjoyable item — Julián Orbón’s fizzy, cross-rhythmed Tres versiones sinfónicos — was also the only Latin American music on the programme seemed symptomatic of an existential crisis. The Bolívars shook the world by being irresistibly youthful, iconoclastic and Venezuelan. In the process of ‘growing up’ they have become just like everyone else. And they don’t seem to be having fun any more.”
The reviews as a whole, and Morrison’s in particular, raise interesting questions about the identity and direction of El Sistema on its 40th birthday. Did the Simón Bolívar orchestra make a rod for its own back with its explosive 2007 debut at the Proms? Where could the orchestra go after this riot of Latin rhythms, dancing musicians, and multi-coloured jackets? Much more of this self-exoticization would have worn thin, not least for Venezuelan musicians, not all of whom are enamoured with having to monkey around on demand to fulfil the desires of European audiences. Anyway, it has since become apparent that the orchestra wants above all to be taken seriously overseas, so it chose an alternative path – which is, as Morrison noted, to become just like everyone else. What London witnessed was a good but not outstanding professional orchestra of mainly male thirty-somethings, playing European masterworks to a largely European audience. The implicit message was that the last 40 years have been about learning to play Europe at its own game.
The jury is still out on whether he succeeded – the consensus from London’s critics seems to be nearly but not quite. But the sense (or illusion) that the SBSO represents a transformation in classical music has gone. In fact, Abreu’s words suggest that this was never his intention:
“I had a deep frustration because I lived in a country that only had one orchestra, where 70% of musicians were foreign. Other countries such as Argentina, Brazil or Mexico had reached great musical development, that’s when the idea was born to organize a system to have at least one great Venezuelan-born orchestra.”
So are these the only two options – self-caricature or imitation? How is a Latin American orchestra supposed to escape these twin straightjackets?
To answer these questions with another: why is El Sistema so focused on impressing audiences in Europe and North America? The identity problem arises in large part because of the context. In London, the SBSO is competing with a clutch of other professional orchestras, and thus questions of similarity and difference become paramount. If it performed in Venezuelan cities instead –Barquisimeto, or Valencia, or Ciudad Guyana – I doubt anyone would care very much if it played all Beethoven or all Bernstein, since it would be a rare opportunity to see a huge, exciting orchestra live.
Alongside staying at home and providing these cultural riches for Venezuelan audiences (after all, this extremely expensive project is funded by the Venezuelan state), a third option, a path between caricature and imitation, would be to prioritize working with local composers and promoting contemporary repertoire. Close collaboration with composers has been a hallmark of youth orchestras in other countries such as Australia and the US. Writing about the former, David Pear notes that “an important element in the ‘enculturation’ of young musicians in a youth orchestra is the exposure to their own national music, and to music by living composers.” He quotes a director who argued that contemporary music “provide[d] for them not merely new summits to climb, but more excitingly, new musical contradictions to resolve.” Young Australian musicians were encouraged to question the music and even the composer when present; the focus was on adventure, play, and improvisation, with more responsibility landing on performers than in mainstream orchestral repertoire.
There are, in other words, several reasons why a central focus on contemporary Venezuelan music would be a significant step forward for El Sistema. It would provide young musicians with new challenges and broaden their training; it would provide a huge shot in the arm for the beleaguered composition profession in Venezuela, which has received little sustenance from El Sistema for most of the last 40 years; and it would resolve the “existential crisis” that Morrison identified, without simply reverting to the “Mambo” model.
Pear, David. 2007. “Youth Orchestras and Repertoire: Towards an Australian Case Study.” Australasian Music Research 9: 79–93.