The future is bright and it sings from the barrio

by Barbara Maria Rathbone


I don’t usually cry for joy at concerts. It has been known for me to be in a state of near collapse listening to Mahler 6 or 10, but those are different tears. Last week when I heard two hundred or so young Venezuelans on the stage of The Royal Festival Hall commanded by their staggeringly gifted conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, I wept. I wept at the passion and pride that emanated from the stage like a mesmerising fragrance over the audience. It was almost supernatural, tribal, like the sounds of the South American forests some of the music they were hearing evoked.

The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar are the product of the vision of El Sistema, a unique educational and vocational programme that lifts children without means and in difficult circumstances, specifically in Venezuela out of the rundown barrios and rural hinterlands where poverty and crime are inevitably the sunset they face, into the world of music making. It is not at all like the Suzuki method, pioneered in the Far East, it is almost unmistakably Latin, for it does what Suzuki cannot do, it instils not only great rhythmic flair and command of the instrument but evangelical JOY in music. It is contagious. In the audience last week were people who would never usually listen to Tchaikovsky, Bartók or Ginastera and yet they were on their feet in ecstatic appreciation.

Take a child and give her an instrument to play and the innate curiosity of childhood takes over, but El Sistema is more.  The children of El Sistema see a gift before them, they feel pride in being able to accomplish the giving of listening pleasure, and take such pleasure themselves from the sounds they make. It is lacking a sense of pride and  identity that so often evolves as the dangerous tenets of teenage gangs, leaning toward a  propensity for tribalism and crime.  It sounds simplistic, but this is its inverse.

El Sistema will change the world. Why? Because, it restores the love and passion for great music and great music making that is very often lacking in our conservatoires and the orchestras they feed. Classical music in Europe is still contained in a mist of privilege and snobbery which alienates many and yet it is clear that the music itself is no barrier if the conduits engage their audience.  It will prove that great classical music IS inclusive and can be exciting.  Great music digs deep into the humanity of all of us and can be used to break down the economic and social structures that divide us. If we can bring El Sistema to Britain and it is already becoming very successful in Scotland, all is well with classical music. This is not hyberbole, it is fact. The future is bright and its herald comes in the colours of the Venezuelan flag.