This is the concert that the National Children's Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performed earlier this month at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, where they also performed Mahler's Symphony No. 1, and the Neojiba orchestra together watched the 4th and final movement as played by the children's orchestra. After performing this work themselves for the first time, watching this video of 250 8-14 year-olds was a reality check for the Brazilians and showed them how far they still have to go. Ricardo Castro explained how these kids were chosen from all around Venezuela and they are just like the kids of Bahia, as many come from cities that still have poor infrastructure and resources, many of these kids are not yet receiving scholarships, have similar social situations, the same amount of rehearsals and lessons per week, and the same quality of instruments. He said that after watching this, there are two things you can do: either give up and say that we could never reach that same point, or set that as your goal and say that in 20 years that is what we will have in Bahia. This concert is really a turning point, he said, and caused him to reflect deeply, as Abreu brought 1400 children and youths to perform at the Salzburg Festival (including this orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, the Venezuelan Brass and Choir, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, and the White Hands Choir) which must have come at a huge expense (plane tickets alone must have cost around $2 million dollars!) There is no doubt that the way these kids play is well beyond their years.
A couple weeks ago, I was introduced to a clarinet player in the top orchestra, named Amanda Muller. Amanda is also a doctoral student at the Federal University of Bahia and doing her dissertation on comparing Neojiba and El Sistema, so naturally I wanted to sit down and talk to her, which I had the opportunity to do this week. Amanda is not Bahian but is from the city of Porto Alegre, which is located in the far south of Brazil close to the border with Uruguay. After finishing college, she met a clarinet teacher from Venezuela named Jorge Montilla (who now teaches at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA) with whom she really wanted to study. At the time, Montilla was teaching at Arizona State University, so she studied English and applied for her Master's degree there and to several other universities in the US. But just when she was ready to accept a scholarship to go study in the states, Montilla moved back to Venezuela and said she should come there if she still wanted to study with him. Not knowing knowing what to do (and not knowing of El Sistema yet), he told her she should watch a film called "Tochar y Luchar" to help her decide. The moment the film was over, she decided to go to Venezuela.
She planned on only spending 2 years there in order to finish her Master's degree, but ended up staying a total of 5 years. She entered the Simon Bolivar Conservatory, which as a private university that is not technically part of El Sistema, yet has a partnership with El Sistema, and she also performed in the Simon Bolivar Symphonic Band. Within El Sistema, she entered the Latin American Clarinet Academy, which is the most select group of clarinetists from around the country (they have academies for all different instruments). She said that El Sistema there is somewhat like a world of its own, because often her whole week would consist of rehearsals, classes, and teaching, filling her whole day from 7am to 7pm, and often then going to a concert at night. She taught in 2 different nucleos during her time there, first at the Los Chorros nucleo, which used to be essentially a juvenile detention center, at later at another nucleo in Caracas.
|"Advancing," home of the Bairro da Paz nucleo|
In her own personal observations comparing the two programs, she finds most everything is similar. The biggest differences she finds is that here it is developing much faster than it did in Venezuela, and that most people within the organization don't even realize how fast it is growing and what strides they are making. She also says that the feeling of ownership by the students of the project here is much stronger than in Venezuela.
|Band rehearsal at the Bairro da Paz nucleo|
Perhaps we outsiders get a little to hung up on the idea of El Sistema helping disadvantaged children. (I myself have often explained El Sistema as a system of music education for disadvantaged and high-risk youth.) Of course, El Sistema does this and helps these poor children, but we must not forget that El Sistema is primarily about inclusion, which means including children of all socio-economic backgrounds. I think we are so focused on the children that are traditional excluded from classical music that we are inadvertently excluding others, or at least not actively trying to include them. This separation only ends up doing a disservice to all, maintaining the ideology of separateness, of "us" and "them," and I'm afraid down the line it could turn into an unhealthy battle of who can create a better orchestra, the traditionally disadvantaged through El Sistema projects, or the well-off with their traditional youth orchestra programs. We must realize that including children from upper and middle class families would benefit everyone, including these very kids. They would learn and grow by making friends and music with children whom they usually would have little interaction with, and thus they would be breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that our society thrusts upon us all. El Sistema is open to all and shows us how all people can come together through music.
|Having fun during rehearsal|
|Chamber group of Neojiba at the Teatro Vila Velha|
featuring Edicson Ruiz (on left)
|All the performers at the chamber music concert|
I also got to briefly meet Alex Klein this week. The Brazilian oboist, and former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony, was here this week as a guest teacher, and at the end of this month I will be moving farther up the coast to spend 2 months studying his own El Sistema-inspired program, PRIMA, in the state of Paraiba.