Philip Hensher: What worked in Venezuela won't do so here

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The Venezuelan system of music education known as El Sistema has been much written about, usually in greatly admiring terms. In the past three decades, a programme of music education has reached deep into the favelas, giving hundreds of thousands of children the opportunity to learn an instrument, and to study in the demanding disciplines of classical music. Hundreds of youth orchestras have spring up, and, it has been argued, the many hours of music teaching and education which Venezuelan youth go through get results in the shape of discipline and commitment to education.

These many youth orchestras feed into a main one with a growing international reputation, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. That orchestra was in town under its charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel last week. They made an immense impact at the Proms a couple of years ago, and tickets for these concerts sold out nearly a year ago. I was lucky enough to be given tickets for one of their concerts, and a morning rehearsal.

Musically, in some ways, they are impressive; immensely well disciplined and accurate. The virtuoso demands of the Rite of Spring, written for an orchestra two-thirds the size, hold no terrors for them.

Their fortissimo is exhilarating, like a stiff gale on a mountain top. On the other hand, it must be said that they tend to play pretty much everything the same. Their account of Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony was grossly unidiomatic, with no rubato, little of that crucial mid-note swelling, and very four-square phrasing.

Basically, this is an orchestra with no tradition of orchestral playing.

It is easy to see what the future holds for these players; touring round the world with the same 12 noisy showpieces, each player hoping to be talent-spotted by some more historic orchestra, and good luck to them.

The story of the orchestra has been much used in recent days for political purposes. Wouldn't it be nice, the argument goes, if we could have our own El Sistema here? Well, it must be pointed out that until the late 1980s, pupils in schools here had many opportunities to learn an instrument for free. There are still dozens of youth orchestras in this country. The National Youth Orchestra, let alone the European Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, could still play the Venezuelans into the ground on a good day.

And, personally, I'm rather sceptical about the claims that the orchestra is largely made up of the children of the poorest of the poor. On first impression, most of them looked like the European middle classes, and it seems improbable that a poor family from the favela could spare a young adult to go round the world for a month playing the viola in an orchestra.

But there is one real factor which should give us a moment's pause before we start borrowing a social programme from Venezuela.

Venezuela is one of the most violent societies on earth. Its capital, Caracas, has the highest murder rate in the world, with 130 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, according to its own government, in 2006. (Independent analysts have placed the figure closer to 160; the next most murderous city is Cape Town, with 62 per 100,000. London, with 7.5m inhabitants, had only 167 murders in total last year). The murder rate has climbed by 67 per cent in the past 10 years.

The claims that El Sistema has improved Venezuelan society in general through mass participation seem very unlikely indeed. If you enjoyed the noise this orchestra made in the last stages of the Danse Sacrale, as I did, you should definitely share your pleasure. But there isn't a panacea for social control here.

Sex appeal is in the eye of the beholder

Is Maureen LIPMAN sexy? A theatre critic didn't think so, after seeing her in A Little Night Music as Mme Armfeldt, saying ungallantly that she was "a wildly unlikely grande horizontale who is supposed to have slept her way round most of the royal families of Europe". Miss Lipman responded by sending images of three unconventionally handsome loves of kings, including Mrs Simpson and the Duchess of Cornwall, annotated "Phwoar! Worra scorcher!"

She has a point. I very much enjoyed Miss Lipman's Mme Armfeldt last week, and had no difficulty at all in believing in her tart, imperious style as that of a spoiled old mistress. I can well imagine the characteristic she was impersonating having a definite erotic appeal in everyday life. Have we, when thinking of characters on stage, in film, or in real life, forgotten something? Sexual appeal is not a uniform thing, and it tends to be at its most potent when it comes in surprising form. And there are many far more surprising seductresses than Miss Lipman, who still draws the fascinated eye in her middle age.

Wine-tasting for fruity, jelly-like beings

I suspect that how you respond to the wine-on-Wednesday story will reveal a good deal about your personality. Experts have claimed that wine tastes different on different days, due to lunar influences.

"Biodynamic rhythms" mean that it is best to taste wine on certain days, termed "fruit" days, and not on others, known as "root" days. Apparently "the effect can be explained by considering the wine in a bottle as a living organism".

This theory descends from the thinking of Rudolf Steiner, who also believed the human race to be as old as the earth and descended from intelligent, jelly-like beings.

You may at this point be thinking, "Where can I get a calendar of biodynamic rhythms for booze-up purposes?", or, alternatively, raising an eyebrow. I mean, why stop at considering the wine in a bottle as a living organism influenced by the moon? Why not think of it as a cream bun, a boy named Sue or the planet Uranus?

The researchers seem to have explained to their wine-tasters that wine tastes better on a "fruit" day, that today is a "fruit" day, and then asked if the wine tasted better today than yesterday. If correctly reported, this procedure lacks something in scientific rigour. Anyway, the worst time this week to drink wine is Wednesday lunchtime, or possibly Tuesday breakfast-time.

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