Monthly Archives: March 2012

El Maestro … but also La Maestra

The similarities are striking. One began his project with 11 young people rehearsing in a garage, the other by persuading and cajoling a slightly larger group of 120 professional players to play in freezing cold train stations around London. They are both passionate, determined, committed, tireless, inspirational leaders of music education projects for the disadvantaged, and both, having toiled over a period measured in decades,  have achieved social and musical results beyond belief. They have spawned generations of players who perform at the most spectacular level but impress as much with their demeanour and their values as their music. Both operate substantially outside of what we think of traditionally (and naively) as western nations, yet both their musical cultures are deeply European whilst happily sitting alongside a real respect for indigenous music and dance.  Both inspire deep affection and burning admiration, and neither has got used to taking no for an answer, not from anyone, anywhere.

There are also differences. Venezuela’s Maestro José Antonio Abreu – known increasingly throughout the world simply as ‘El Maestro’ – is at the head of an international movement of millions, a regular at the ears of Presidents, Prime Ministers, film makers, thinkers and monarchs, recipient of more prizes than Haydn wrote symphonies, and rumoured to be in the running for the big one: the Nobel Peace Prize. A cross between a Mother Teresa and a Renaissance Pope, he is one of the most singular human beings alive on the planet today.

Rosemary Nalden, on the other hand, is a name you may well never have heard of. Particularly as her project, Buskaid, is somewhat smaller than El Maestro’s. Remember it. Whilst he has anything up to 400,000 playing in hundreds of orchestras nationwide at any one time, and thinks nothing of fielding thousands on one platform, Nalden has painstakingly grown her Soweto township school from a handful of children in 1992, to its current 100 four to thirty year olds. Her results though, are no less admirable. Whilst Abreu reinvents the wheel daily, Nalden has instead created a small burnished jewel of an organisation, able, due to the lack of size, to remain in control of everything.  (And I mean everything. If you see Buskaid in concert, don’t be surprised if she pops onto the stage at some point during the performance to remonstrate with one of the players for anything from playing that displeases her, to encouragement to get them – literally – dancing in the aisles). It’s the original family company that has never wanted to go public, or grow beyond the reach of its founder.

Rosemary Nalden

I went to hear a small ensemble from the group play last week whilst Nalden was in London to give a Tedex talk, and was utterly headspiningly unbelievably indescribably blown away. As usual. Apologies here for my English reserve. Really. It’s like medicine for life. Like the Venezuelans, they play with unabashed joy, and watching the lithe and beguiling virtuoso fiddle player Simiso Radebe dance his way through Biber and Boccherini with his dreadlocks flying, or listening to Cecilia Manyama and Mathapelo Matabane singing township and jazz standard arrangements, you could have been at Lincoln Center, Ronnie Scott’s, or the Royal Festival Hall in front of thousands, not in a humble church well off the international culture circuit.  Here they are in concert:

Had you seen them a few years ago you would have been cheering Samson Diamond on violin. Next year it will be someone else. And yet the beauty and the connoisseur like playing and the finishing of every concert with a standing ovation is not actually what I want to alight on. Nor is it the fact that all of the group, every last one, impresses by their hunger and desire to play and to communicate.

So, what’s my point here? Well, just this. Here are two special individuals who have the power to change and to improve lives. And nothing of what either does is from the textbooks or the national plans or the ‘academic expert consultant driven think tank think-ins’ that have ended up running so much of our lives, and often the parts that in fact turn out to be boring,  joyless and meaningless. We cover our fear in regulations, spreading it over our institutions like thick slow drying oil paint, and then wonder why we end up feeling empty. Yet, these are two people who just got on with it, trusting to their common sense, humanity and sense of justice instead of the rules that happened to get handed out at the time. We all have an Abreu or a Nalden inside of ourselves, and I often wonder how simply wonderful our societies would be if we had the courage to let their type of approach take over, at least a bit more of the time. Oh to be able to tell the Camerons and the suits to simply pack their bags.

Apparently we get the leaders we deserve. But here, for a change, are two we can really be proud of. And whilst I could mention half a dozen more of people in this line of work, my point is this; three cheers for Rosemary Nalden and all that she has done and continues to do. We all know about Maestro. Now let’s hear it for La Maestra. And don’t forget to give generously – whether it’s money, free teaching, happily clapping like mad at the end of one of those concerts, or just plain spreading the word. Every little helps when the consequence is this amazing.


This is the moment when the astronaut actually gets to walk on the moon.

For the third year in succession we have come to a very special moment in the year … the moment when the Abreu Fellow’s actually hit – not town – but the country of Venezuela.

Families in Montalbán, Caracas, at a concert produced for this year’s Abreu Fellows.

Abreu Fellow Julie Davis coaches a young Sistema violinist in a Barquisimeto nucleo.

The Abreu Fellows Programme, brainchild of Mark Churchill and run through the New England Conservatory, is a highly imaginative and idealistic one year programme allowing annual intakes of a small number of eager students to learn in immersive depth about Venezuela’s Sistema. And so far there’s no doubt: they are already becoming some of tomorrow’s more influential Sistema leaders.  Many of the first two years’ groups are now running Sistemas; thinking and writing about the state of El Sistema around the world (sometimes even quite provocatively); collecting and evaluating data; and generally beating the drum for this extraordinary movement. The Programme is already looking like a great way to go about the future for El Sistema in the US. Now they just need the money to keep it going.

And this month, the current batch of Fellows have just got to that hallowed moment in the year when they actually get to travel to Venezuela, back to the movement’s ‘motherland’ to see El Sistema in action where it all began. Many people reading this will probably not realise quite how sick with excitement the Fellows will be about this opportunity: it’s like a sportsman or women getting to compete at the Olympics, or a soloist finally getting on stage at Carnegie or Lincoln Center, and all for the first time. This is the moment when the astronaut actually gets to walk on the moon.

Yes, we know, El Sistema get-togethers can sometimes have the feeling of a revivalist cult, and the excitement and hype surrounding it can put all sorts of otherwise sane people off, but believe me, when you’re in Venezuela, you get it. Big time. And I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t. To begin with there’s the backdrop of that humongous tropical vibrancy; all flamboyant hot colours and undentable enthusiasm coming at you from every angle. And the commitment and curiosity from thousands of young musicians from the Andes to the Atlantic who give you their respect as well as their best performance simply because you’ve just walked into the room to listen to them. Welcome to Latin-land. It’s powerful stuff. And as a bright new Abreu Fellow, it becomes the glue that keeps your aspirations together, not just in the days, but also in the years ahead.

So here are a few blogs and You Tubes from the Fellows, as they move around the country. Expect a lot of gushing, bucket loads of emotion, romanticism, optimism, and reminders (if you are over 30) of ways you used to be before you grew up and got that little bit quieter. The sound of these posts is unmistakable, if admittedly somewhat clichéd: it’s the idealistic sound of tomorrow being constructed today. Hopefully it’s contagious. So enjoy it, and don’t forget to think about it when you hit that rather boring office meeting next week. As for me I should be in Caracas next week this time where I’ll be getting my own spring jab of this seemingly chaotic but endlessly motivating enthusiasm.

Mahler from the train … update post … ‘that’s’ Why Mahler

So here is an edited version of Friday’s Mahler Stube and composing hut picture.
(Note: see previous post below – ‘Mahler from the train’ – to make sense of this one) :

And here now are some rather clearer pictures I took when I journeyed from Venice in August 2009 (exactly one century after Mahler was working there) to see the hut:

This, amongst other things, is a piece of paper I found in the hut in Mahler’s handwriting listing the movements of the Song of the Earth and the 9th. symphony, presumably made whilst he was at the Hotel Savoy in New York during the winter season of 1908.

And this is the kind of view that Mahler would have had from just outside his composing hut. Bizarrely, it points exactly to where the snowy picture from the train was taken. Dobbiaco is visible in the distance.

And finally here is a youtube where you can see video of the Stube up close.

These pictures may look ‘nice’, but the experience of being there, right in the hut, well that is just indescribable. When there in 2009 I went for dinner in the Stube the night before visiting the hut, courtesy of a hire bicycle at the railway station, and met the owner. Then I got there early the next morning, right at opening time, and had more than an hour in the hut on my own. During that time I listened to the 1974 Christa Ludwig, Reneé Kollo and Leonard Bernstein recording of Das Lied on an MP3 that I had brought with me. Oh, and I made sure not to go during Dobbiaco Mahler Festival time. Mahler in the mountains. Get it right and there is simply nothing to compare with it. You look at that picture from outside the hut looking towards Dobbiaco and the mountains that are now the Austrian border, and think, ‘that is exactly the view that he would have seen whilst writing this music’. Why Mahler? … that’s why Mahler.

Mahler from the train


As I was travelling by train between San Candido and Perca today I realised we were about to pass the famous hut where Mahler composed symphonies 9 and 10, and The Song of The Earth.

I rushed to photo it and here is the result. Despite the rubbishy phone camera, the oncoming sun and the dirty window of a clickety clack Italian train, you can just see the yellow front of Mahler’s house (now a Stube where you can eat), and to its right a small brown blob above a mound of snow. That blob is the famous composing hut. Far better to get out, as I did one summer, at Dobiacco and make the journey to the hut, which is open to the public. It’s a profound experience. Even today, with Mahler on my brain since the photo, puzzles and problems I have been wrestling with for months have found resolution. That’s the power of Mahler for you.

Meanwhile, if all you have is the train, be on the south side of the carriage and pray you don’t have low cloud or (as today) the sun in your eyes. And perhaps think twice before trying to explain to your Italian and German speaking fellow passengers the meaning of that chord in the 10th symphony. I probably only just avoided being fined and arrested. I hope Mahler would have been proud of me.