To see the impact that El Sistema has had in the UK, the best place to look is Scotland. Over the past four years a housing estate in Stirling has become the first community outside Venezuela to set up an official partner project whereby children from a deprived neighbourhood are encouraged to take up musical instruments and play in an orchestra.
There is arguably no other country that has taken the ethos of El Sistema so much to heart. Every appearance in the UK by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, its original flagship ensemble, has become an event. Last week the Venezuelans staged a concert in Scotland with the local Big Noise orchestra and, over the weekend, London’s Southbank Centre laid on four days of workshops, open rehearsals and concerts that attracted more than 10,000 people.
For the main event on Saturday the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra itself offered a standard concert – far more sober than in the past, with none of the usual jamboree at the end when the players drape themselves in the Venezuelan flag and dance around the stage. That, though, is as it should be, now that its players are adults, leaving the high jinks to the other youth ensembles across Venezuela that El Sistema has spawned in its wake.
As symphony orchestras go, this one is huge in size and sound. Proudly boasting eight horns and 14 basses, the overture to Egmont immediately plunged into Beethoven on a massive scale, the lower strings digging deep into dark sonorities. Then, for Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, even more players came on, though the pace slowed commensurately, as if the music was now being weighed down by the sheer numbers involved.
After the interval, the single work was Beethoven’s Symphony No.3. Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s charismatic conductor, never gives, or asks for, less than 100 per cent and this was a typically all-or-nothing performance from everybody concerned. Other orchestras exhibit greater precision, other conductors pace the symphony better (Dudamel became bogged down in the Funeral March), but few engage the symphony’s life-or-death struggle and see it through to its concluding triumph with the single-minded commitment of Dudamel and his Venezuelans. There was just one encore, “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations – a small gesture towards a country that has almost adopted them as its own.