The Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, made up of 200 smiling tousle-haired young Venezuelan players, with its equally smiling and energetic conductor has taken the world by storm.
What makes this orchestra special is that at a stroke, it banishes all the fears that haunt classical music. They transform this apparently elitist and difficult art into something popular, transcendent, democratic and socially cohesive, all at once. One reason is that none of these young players comes from a privileged background, in fact many of them hail from what is euphemistically called “the wrong side of the tracks”. What motivates them is the thought that, if they play well and work hard, they’ll be a member of a winning team. And when they look up at their now world-famous conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, they know that he is still “one of them”, and that’s why they play so well for him.
The same goes for the other 120 orchestras and choirs across Venezuela that constitute the El Sistema project, set up 34 years ago by Jose Abreu. Each orchestra is like a community, which feeds off and supports the larger community it lives in. The idea that the power of an orchestra lies in its sense of communal solidarity will be resisted by many in the West. Caught up in the romantic idea of art’s essential autonomy, they will insist that musical excellence is one thing, community spirit quite another.
Why was it, I asked, that when he conceived his plan to rescue street kids through music, he didn’t turn to the music of his own country?
Why did he think that European art music from a bygone era would appeal to kids in the mean barrios of Caracas and Maracaibo? He looked at me with complete bewilderment, and I realised that for him all the Western worries about distinctions between “high” and “low” art, popular and classical, middle or working-class were completely irrelevant. “Well,” he said, patiently, “music is music. Of course we play some folk music as well. But this music is so great. And it demands the best from the players, they have to rise to the challenge.”
Which is exactly what they do, magnificently. And when they perform the music, it becomes their own, as if it was their native tongue all along. That’s why the idea these kids could “save” classical music isn’t so implausible. They raise it up, by reminding us of the old Enlightenment dream – that underneath all our quarrels and differences, we are essentially one human kind, which a single music can speak to. At the same time, they bring it firmly down to earth. Classical music becomes something normal, everyday, no longer a problem to be fretted over. These young players remind me of those fairy-stories where a stranger comes to town and shows everyone that the giant that’s been terrorising them for years is really quite harmless; it’s only fear that made it seem scary.