El Sistema at Salzburg
Venezuela’s El Sistema must bring a blush to the cheeks of most governments (especially here in the comparatively well heeled UK): 286 music schools located mostly in the barrios where children as young as three can receive free musical instruments and tuition. The result is over 100 youth orchestras, almost as many children’s orchestras and 30 adult professional symphony orchestras drawn from a population of 30 million.
This DVD has two separate films recording the appearances of El Sistema at the 2013 Salzburg Festival. The first is a live performance by the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at the Felsenreitschule, opening with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture conducted by Sir Simon Rattle (who, quite rightly, gives a tip of the hat to the very young clarinettist after his solo). That’s followed by the four short movements of Ginastera’s Estancia Suite, convincingly led by one Jesús Parra a few weeks short of his 19th birthday. The players attack this life-affirming score with unalloyed confidence and joy, though the sneaking suspicion grew that this is not so much recreative music-making as a well-rehearsed routine. Such pseudo-spontaneity is even more noticeable in Mahler’s First Symphony (Rattle back on the podium) with many players scarcely looking at the music, focused instead entirely on a conductor who has led them in this work many times before. No matter. The sight and sound of these youngsters playing this great music with such complete commitment is heart-warming – and if you want to hear Mahler’s First Symphony with octuple winds, 17 double basses, 14 horns and five tubas, here’s your chance. Bernstein’s ‘Mambo’ (from West Side Story) is the inevitable encore, topped off by a less well-worn Radetzky March (young Parra back on the podium).
The second film follows the visit to Salzburg by the members of the White Hands Choir. The choir is made up of two united parts led by two conductors: one of children with limited vision, learning difficulties, impaired mobility and Down’s syndrome; the second of children with impaired hearing who wear white gloves, their elegant hand choreography reflecting the shape and expression of the music sung by their colleagues. The rehearsal for their concert at the Stiftung Mozarteum is attended by the 75-year-old José Antonio Abreu, revered founder of El Sistema, and Plácido Domingo, a longtime stalwart supporter. I defy anyone not to be profoundly moved and impressed by the performance itself, featuring the music of eight South American composers and Mozart (Ave verum). There is a many a professional able-bodied Western choir who cannot touch the heart quite like these blind and deaf youngsters. Truly, we have much to learn from them.