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By the time we reached the encores some of the brass players had shifted over to play percussion, another group had stripped off their jackets to form a rollicking band of drummers, and one brave trumpeter had grabbed a microphone and was leading the audience in communal singing. This joyous scene could only have hailed from Venezuela.
By now everybody must have heard about the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which has brought young people out of the slums to take up classical music. One of the questions that has been begging is what happens to the astonishing number of excellent young players the country has been producing afterwards and a small part of the answer was to be found here.
Most of the 43 members of the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble have out of the main Simón Bolívar orchestra, the pinnacle of the 200 or so youth orchestras that make up the nationwide music system. Founded in 2003, it has quickly found its way on to the international circuit and is now another flagship in what is becoming a vast Venezuelan fleet of impressive musical firepower.
A brass ensemble is meant to stun and this one did not disappoint. Opening with the Gran fanfaria by Giancarlo Castro, one of the orchestra’s trumpeters, ensured a successful lift-off, like the main theme from Star Wars. Elgar Howarth’s well-known arrangement of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition tested the players more and showed off their technical range: not just the obvious brooding, dark power of “The Old Castle” and “The Catacombs”, but the finesse of the wriggling mass of trumpet trills in the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”. This is a serious showpiece and no easy challenge.
Under the directorship of Thomas Clamor, a former member of the Berliner Philharmoniker and founder of the Ensemble, the playing was flecked with only the occasional doubtful tuning. To end, the Suite from Bernstein’s West Side Story – a favourite of the main Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra – turned up in an arrangement for brass that was guaranteed to set the feet tapping with its high-volume, big band energy. Like any visit by young musicians from Venezuela, the feelgood factor here was as high as the decibel count. ★★★★☆