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Entertainment & Arts

Commentary: El Sistema uses glorious Mahler to extol hope as the coronavirus attacks Venezuela

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Conductor Christian Vásquez and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra face the crowd on Feb. 22, 2020.
(Gerardo Gomez/Prensa FundaMusical)

As is shockingly happening in so many places around the world, Venezuela ordered a national lockdown Monday after confirming 33 cases of COVID-19. And like so many other music institutions around the world, El Sistema, Venezuela’s comprehensive and internationally influential music education program, began streaming concerts Thursday on its new sala virtual. The first, posted on YouTube, is an extraordinary performance that took place on Feb. 22 of Mahler’s Second Symphony by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra as part of Sistema’s 45th anniversary celebrations.

Extraordinary can mean a lot of things, especially when it comes to Venezuela.

It is far too obvious an understatement to say that the country, in economic decline and politically unstable, is horrendously unprepared for a pandemic under Nicolás Maduro’s troubling regime. Since coming to power, Maduro has used El Sistema as a political propaganda tool, and yet the core of the program has been maintained through not only thick but also the thin of the last few years.

A social program funded by the executive branch of the government, El Sistema has continued to provide safe haven and fulfill basic needs for close to a million children throughout the country, including in the poorest and most remote regions. Making and listening to music is seen in Venezuela as something that makes a community whole, that brings together people on different sides of whatever aisles they are on.

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Some members of El Sistema favor Maduro, and some are part of his growing opposition. Still, they play together. Dissent may be discouraged, but this is a petri dish for it when things aren’t right and a social experiment in working things out.

There is no question, however, that much has radically changed from when I visited Caracas eight years ago. Gustavo Dudamel, the program’s international figurehead — and at the time one of Venezuela’s most beloved personalities — has not been able to return to his country after Maduro publicly attacked him for advocating democracy (he remains in close contact with Sistema, nevertheless, from afar). A mass exodus of musicians from Venezuela has decimated the Simón Bolívar Symphony. March 24 will mark the second anniversary of the death of Sistema’s mastermind and the mentor of everyone notable associated with it, José Antonio Abreu.

Yet the Bolívar ensemble at the Sala Bolívar appeared just as big as ever, which can be as many as 175 players. A very large chorus filled the benches behind the orchestra, and two children’s choruses took over the side seats above the stage. The conductor was Christian Vásquez, who was in the first class of Los Angeles Philharmonic Dudamel fellows in 2009, the year Dudamel became music director. Vásquez went on to build an international career, stepping down last year as music director of the Stavanger Symphony in Norway after six seemingly successful years.

These Bolívars are clearly not the Bolívars of yore. As the players in the youth symphony for which Dudamel had once been a concertmaster and then music director aged, they became professional with extensive touring, regular collaborations with the L.A. Phil and recordings. It is hard to tell from the video how many, if any of the old Bolívars are playing in this Mahler performance. I didn’t recognize a single one.

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Close to a half of the orchestra are now stodgier, older musicians, likely instructors. The youngish musicians who fill the ranks do, however, have some of that old Bolívar swagger that can be so appealing. Women don’t hesitate to wear low cut tops and moderately short skirts. Men might sport ear studs and a braggadocio virtuosity. But the overall orchestral mood is far more subdued than it was in the exciting Dudamel days.

Mahler’s Second, which is known as the “Resurrection,” is a longtime Bolívar and Dudamel specialty (he conducted the symphony with the L.A. Phil as recently as last summer at the Hollywood Bowl). It was more than fitting for last month’s occasion in Caracas and full of symbolism that can be interpreted in more ways than one.

In the symphony, which with its two vocal soloists, chorus and off-stage bands lasts well over an hour, Mahler works out his own crisis of faith. The first movement is a huge funeral oration. The three middle movements are Mahler’s attempt to apply nostalgia as a weapon against hopelessness, but he sinks into an awful funk. Anguished orchestral grief followed by a terrifying Dies irae open the last movement.

Finally, there is a horrifying crie de cour , so seeming that loud it could be heard across vast Caracas, and often described in the analytical literature as “The Last Trump” (I’m not making this up). The flutes and piccolo imitate the “The Bird of Death.” The dead then arise new and whole, a believably triumphant vista that is one of the most inspiring finales in all of music.

The camera panning around the Sala Bolívar showed performers and audience who looked like those in any concert hall. This could well be an attempt by the powers that be to project normality for a country where there has been so much suffering already and with so much frightening insecurity ahead. In today’s Venezuela, resurrection cannot come without first unimaginable pain.

Although another Abreu protégé, Vásquez is not the kind of charismatic conductor Dudamel is. He doesn’t show emotion. He is more like an unsmiling but determined general leading troops into a dangerous battle. The funereal first movement is unusually slow and exceptionally solid, as if the players were doing everything they could to keep their feet on the ground and fight dread. The playing here is solid and sober.

The middle three movements prove problematic. There are moments of Venezuelan flair, but the ensemble playing is not cocky and often rough. Hope feels out of reach, the battle for optimism being lost, a public that is seen on the streets beaten down.

Vásquez begins the last movement with cold, steely determination. He amplifies alarm. Even watching and listening on the computer, you can sense the ground shaking under your feet in what becomes an uncompromising emotional earthquake followed by an explosive resurrection of remarkable power.

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Watching the orchestra will not tell you who is on Maduro’s side or who is on that of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. There can no longer be demonstrations on the streets outside because of the coronavirus. People are scared.

Mahler’s Second won’t save anyone. But it can inspire. The sheer force of will of that climax goes far beyond politics. It reveals a magnificent example of the spirit of a people, of what it means not to give up.

A desperate Venezuela is asking the international community for aid. Let Mahler not Maduro be our guide.


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