Classical music has never enjoyed a more successful a marketing campaign than that promoting Gustavo Dudamel, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, and the proliferation of Jose Antonio Abreu’s visionary Sistema.
From its origins 37 years ago in a Caracas garage it has indeed been a remarkable story, with two million young people having passed through the programme in Venezuela, and thousands more passing through similar schemes elsewhere - most notably on a housing estate in Stirling, where last week 8000 people braved pouring rain to cheer their children on under Dudamel’s baton.
In London, Dudamel and co transformed the Southbank Centre into a ‘nucleo’, with the benign gospel – every child can make music, and making music communally means training in ‘the experience of agreement’ – being promulgated in Lambeth. First we were invited to watch a hundred primary-school children make their first instrumental foray. Then came an open rehearsal for the big band, in which Dudamel was as economical with his advice as he was with his gestures, but from the players’ response you could sense their symbiosis of intention. And if the concert itself made a fine showcase, that was less due to the Beethoven works in the programme – ‘Egmont’ and the ‘Eroica’, both of which had verve but rather crudely-calibrated dynamics – than to their sparkling performance of Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. These lovely variations on a theme by Purcell are designed to introduce all the instruments by family, from the top down – piccolo, flute, clarinet, bassoon etc. Here we could savour not only solo virtuosity, but also brilliant synergy of dazzling trumpets, warm strings, and percussive rattle-and-snap. In technical terms this performance was on a par with that of any great orchestra you care to name, but what made it unique was the youthful ardour of their sound. Yet many of these players are now seasoned professionals in their thirties, as we saw when the Simon Bolivar String Quartet gave an inspirational recital of Schubert and Ginastera.
Listening to the Southbank’s all-age Giant Orchestra blast their way through Holst’s ‘Mars’, one could see what fertile soil Abreu’s ideas have found in London. But for them to reach full fruition would require very different educational spending priorities from the ones being pursued by the present government.