‘When a child can play an instrument, he or she is no longer poor.’ These words by the visionary Jose Antonio Abreu perfectly encapsulate the philosophy underlying the musical crusade he founded 35 years ago, which now embraces 330,000 children in his native Venezuela, plus deprived teenagers in assorted regions of Scotland, Germany, and South Africa.
After Gustavo Dudamel’s Prom reached its millionth YouTube hit last year, the miracle of El Sistema – and the excellence of its flagship ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra – has become common knowledge. Here is the successor to that band – whose members are now in their late twenties – in the form of the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, consisting of 200 (genuine) teenagers whose talents have been nurtured in the same rigorous system.
The army facing us for the opening concert of their Southbank residency was so big it could scarcely fit on stage, with 13 double-basses, 40 violins, and other sections augmented to match. And when they launched into Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the sound was no less of a surprise: muscular warmth in the strings, vibrancy in the brass, and a larger-than-life full-throatedness which this titanic work asks for, but does not always get. Conductor Christian Vasquez moved the Allegro along at a thrusting pace, with the syncopations bouncing across the bar-lines; he found a wide range of dynamic contrasts in the slow movement, and wove pianissimo spells in the Scherzo; this is a man who knows exactly what he wants, and how to get it. And this is an orchestra whose cleanness of sound belies both its youth and its gargantuan size.
Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, with its multiple echoes of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, is one of his most radiantly optimistic works, but it was premiered in the darkest days of war: Sviatoslav Richter, who was present, recalled the sense of shared brotherhood in the auditorium. There was something of that communality here, as these teenagers proceeded to give it the most wonderfully polished performance. But the difference between this band and, say, the LSO is that here every phrase had the raw compellingness of youthful conviction.
Encores? Three, played in a raucous, joyous frenzy in bright Venezuelan shirts, with tuba-tossing, double-bass twirling, the whole band in a dance. By sponsoring this project, Shell has convincingly applied to rejoin the human race.