I suppose you could become annoyed by the gushing enthusiasm for idealistic international music projects – usually involving young people – which is such a feature of bien-pensant liberal arts journalism, including my own. Igor Toronyi-Lalic has certainly got annoyed – but bien-pensant liberalism is precisely what gets up the nose of that controversial arts writer, film-maker and reviewer.
Toronyi-Lalic – whom I happen to find personally engaging, and think is a talented writer – recently, in the course of a glowing review of a Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra concert at London’s Southbank Centre, laid into Venezuela’s El Sistema programme of youth classical music education with entertaining bile. He fingered El Sistema’s founder, the venerated José Antonio Abreu, and its poster-boy conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, as cheerleaders for an authoritarian “communist” regime, ignoring the fact that Abreu founded El Sistema decades before Hugo Chávez came to power. In a scattershot of ire, he also accused El Sistema of “imposing” western classical music on unwilling street kids, and of debasing music’s true nature and purpose by using it as a means to an end. He questions the whole idea that music can make you a better, wiser or richer person.
You can try to refute Toronyi-Lalic on a point-by-point basis, showing, for example, that there is no inherent antipathy to western classical music among Venezuelan street kids (and that El Sistema encourages other forms of music alongside “western” classical music), and referring to evidence, cited by the Inter-American Development Bank when it decided to support El Sistema, that the crime rate and school drop-out rate among 300,000 participants in El Sistema had fallen well below control groups in the rest of the country. But you could also find his tirade helpful in focusing the mind. What exactly can be claimed for these projects, programmes and initiatives, for El Sistema and its offshoots, for Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, heard last week and this week at the BBC Proms, and for the newest kid on the block, the Aldeburgh World Orchestra (AWO), which I went to see playing Mahler and Shostakovich at Snape in Suffolk last weekend, and which will perform at the Proms on Sunday?
Peace and goodwill have not suddenly descended on the Middle East by grace of the Israeli-Arab orchestra, founded by Edward Said and Barenboim in 1999 on the principle that “harmony in personal or international relations can only exist by listening”; the world continues to have its problems, despite the AWO bringing together 120 young musicians from 35 countries in the sleepy Suffolk countryside. Art, as Auden almost said, makes nothing happen. Or perhaps art’s first duty is to itself – to be true to itself in the valley of its own making.
During the first half of the concert in Snape, I felt the AWO wasn’t quite succeeding in this primary duty. The elusive world of the Adagio from Mahler’s 10th symphony, a spiralling down into ever deeper circles of despair, seemed just beyond the reach of these young players, not so much technically as intellectually and emotionally.
But the second-half performance of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony dispelled my doubts. Right from the start there was a complete commitment and grasp of the music’s sweep and range of moods. The vigour of the final peroration – which the AWO’s conductor, Sir Mark Elder, had explained in a pre-performance talk as a pure act of defiant self-assertion, not an ironic comment on, or glorification of, Stalin’s regime – nearly blew the roof off the Maltings.
A talk with a group of players from the orchestra, aged between 20 and 24, including a Chinese horn-player, a Colombian double-bassist, a Jordanian violinist and their manager, Maria Bennell, might even have won over Toronyi-Lalic.
“In Paris, I’m afraid everyone’s criticising me, but here everyone trusts everyone and I don’t feel I’m being judged,” said French flautist Samuel Bricault. American violinist Margaret Gould enthused about the “amazing” repertoire the orchestra is performing: “We’re capable of it, it’s within our reach.” All praised the remarkable courtesy of Sir Mark: “He never really got angry,” said Colombian bassist Bernardo Alviz Iriarte, a quietly impressive young man who only took up music at 17.
The first challenge for the orchestra – never mind achieving world peace – was to create a unified sound from musicians trained in different traditions. Hanxuan Liang, from Beijing, commented that, “it wasn’t difficult to meld together, to solidify a group sound.”
Liang already has ideas about how to improve music education in China, to make it more geared towards producing good orchestral musicians, not just soloists. Maria Bennell sees a movement in younger classical ensembles away from deadness, towards flexibility, energy and passion. I believe the musicians of AWO will have had their lives changed by this experience, and I have enough foolish optimism to think that the world also can be changed, starting in such small ways.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres