Bienvenidos a Venezuela …

Published September 2012. This is a blog version of an article written for the Strad Magazine in summer 2012 about the work of El Sistema’s first specialised baroque ensemble, commissioned as part of the magazine’s August issue dedicated to Latin America. 


It began innocently enough. In the interval of a concert in Manchester in early February 2011, Eduardo Mendez, Executive Director of El Sistema, took me by the arm and intoned, deliberately yet quietly, “Maestro wants you to start a baroque orchestra in Venezuela”. His words were uttered in that soft yet persuasive manner that characterises much of El Sistema’s communication, very different from the clichéd image of Simón Bolívar mambo madness. For years Maestro José Antonio Abreu – founder, director and godfather of the Venezuelan Sistema, and whom I have known since the late 1970s – had mentioned to me his interest in bringing baroque music in depth to Venezuela. Around 2006, whilst CEO of the OAE, I had begun a proposal for a partnership with Venezuela to do just that but then I moved to Southbank Centre and the idea fell dormant. Now it had returned.

In a way there was nothing surprising about the request. As El Sistema had developed from its humble but committed beginnings in 1975 it increasingly began to expand its work into new areas of music making. From the Venezuelan Brass and Percussion Ensembles to prison orchestras, from ‘paper’ orchestras for three year olds to a national instrument repair centre, and festivals dedicated to almost every instrument of the orchestra, El Sistema’s voracious hunger knew no bounds in its desire to develop into new areas. It was natural therefore that at a certain point the Venezuelans would want to absorb for themselves the lessons of the period instrument movement of the last half century, no matter the complexities of accomplishing such an aim in a culture so apparently far removed from European period instrument ideas. There would be doubters. As one hugely respected director of an internationally renowned orchestra put it when I discussed the invitation with them, ‘are you sure the baroque approach will work with the Venezuelans?’ Well that sounded like a decent challenge. I agreed almost immediately, with no thought whatsoever for the practicalities.

So it was that I found myself, almost exactly six months later, sitting in splendid isolation in Venezuela’s Maiquetia International Airport customs office, explaining to a baffled official why I was carrying 54 baroque bows commissioned from a company half way around the world called ‘Brijwoo an Nicer’ (that’s ‘Bridgewood & Nietzert’ for the rest of us). They had never seen anything like it. This two hour ordeal – actually the customs people were incredibly polite, even if they did in the end keep the bows for about a week – was just the first of a number of hurdles that required constant jumping practice in order to get the project going.

One reason I was interested in this project was because of my experience of the Venezuelan string playing tradition. During the 1970s, after a spell in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I had been concertmaster of a Venezuelan orchestra and a professor with El Sistema’s first youth orchestra, and during the intervening period I had regularly heard Venezuelan Youth Orchestras performing in dozens of concerts in several continents. Their string playing style derives almost exclusively from one violinist, a lovely player called José Francisco del Castillo with whom I had worked in the 1970s. A beautiful player actually, but because so many hundreds of thousands of young players learnt so quickly within the Sistema, many ended up without his refinement, but instead with rather horizontal angular bow arms. Speed group learning, fast wide intense constant vibrato, and huge orchestral string sections meant that the true sound of the string players was often hidden. So I had an immediate aspiration: giving a group of Sistema players baroque bows and leading them away from constant vibrato and a continuously intense but monotone sound, a route – I hoped – to getting them to phrase with the right rather than left arm, and to thereby discover new sounds, a new aesthetic, a new world even.

People have asked me, what was the ultimate aim of the work? Well about a month after agreeing to the venture I worked up a five year plan with aims and objectives and mapped out projects. I showed this to Abreu. He looked at it, and when we next met he placed it on the table between us and said kindly, “maestro, I want you to start a baroque orchestra in Venezuela”. This perhaps needs translating. It has been said, and rightly I think, that for the Venezuelans the planning is the doing, rather than as in Europe and the US, where futures are often so excessively mapped out in advance that reality can become something that fights with, rather than supports, the plan. The aim, was to set up an orchestra. The rest would follow naturally. Bienvenidos a Venezuela.

Eventually I agreed that I would go out to Venezuela once every two months for a few weeks at a time and initially work in two different ways. One idea was to establish a small string group with whom I and colleagues from Europe could work in real detail and focus, and a second area of activity in which the Venezuelans could send me anywhere they liked throughout the country – from the Andes to the Orinoco, and as far as the borders of the Caribbean, Brazil and Colombia if that was what they wanted – to spread the word about what wonderful baroque repertoire exists, and to get as many people as possible, from young starters to experienced players, performing it. (Remember El Sistema currently has getting on for 400,000 young players spread throughout the country in more than 200 local nucleo centres). In addition I now also sometimes work with the Caracas Youth Orchestra on larger scale symphony sized projects. In this article, however, I am going to concentrate on describing my journey in the last eight months with the first of these activities, describing how we have begun to put together a new group of dedicated string players, and introducing them, bang in the middle of the New World, to the sound of the old. Welcome to the world of Espíritu Barroco Venezolano.

Espíritu in October 2011 (above), and then (right) in April 2012

OK. It was pretty chaotic to begin with. Any of you who have tried to set up a new group will recognise the symptoms. The players were not quite sure what was going on or what the end result would be; it was not at all clear how any of the busy rehearsal and study schedules of the students could be made to fit with a new programme of work (students often go to university in the morning and rehearse in the afternoons). It was also not clear who was administrating, how the work related to their current teachers, how the precious bows would be distributed, to whom the orchestra reported, where the piles of music I was bringing across the Atlantic could be kept, who actually was being asked to play, where rehearsals would be, what sort of keyboard instruments existed, and exactly (did I say exactly?) what budget was available, or indeed, let’s be honest, how any of these decisions would in fact get made. Oh yes, and my plane ticket might arrive a couple of days before flying if I was lucky. There is a moment that returns a number of times in the film Shakespeare in Love when Geoffrey Rush is asked a succession of questions about how a diverse list of things will actually come to pass. ‘It’s a mystery’ is his constant reply as he shakes his head and looks in the direction of heaven, then simply walking off camera to get on with things. I know how he felt.

It had always been my plan to begin with baroque bows and modern instruments and modern strings. I wanted to catch the interest of players with what a baroque bow can do before they might lose interest due to the added difficulty of using gut strings and no chin rest or (for the ‘cellos) spikes to anchor the instrument to the ground, or indeed get put off by the idea that they needed to change to become ‘authentic’ performers. For the future we will see, but this is not a project about making echt baroque players; it is rather a method of introducing a new way of producing sound into El Sistema’s world, together with playing the extraordinary repertoire of the baroque period. I would rather spread a way of playing that can sail happily through the whole country than create just one great string baroque orchestra dependent on a constant supply of gut strings, an approach I think is much more in sympathy with El Sistema, and indeed with the whole Latin American attitude to life. So it’s not about creating new boundaries between old music and new, old techniques and new, but, as in Europe, it is about relearning and refinding string techniques that got lost in the post French Revolution rush, traditions that got trampled by the new music making of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eventually we agreed to work with players from the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, an orchestra of the best 17 to 25 year olds nationally (the next age group down from the more famous Simón Bolívar ‘B’ Symphony Orchestra that tours with Gustavo Dudamel) adding in a few players with actual baroque ‘gut string’ experience from the oldest of the Sistema orchestras, the Simón Bolívar ‘A’ Symphony Orchestra. The Ensemble numbers just over twenty.

Boris Paredes leading Espíritu.

The two or three older experienced players, mainly in their thirties, are a great boon. They already know the baroque ‘language’ and can carry on the work with the younger players both when I am and am not in Venezuela.

Espíritu Barroco Venezolano at the Social Action Music Centre in Caracas where we rehearse.

When I am around in Caracas, the players get a combination of lessons and ensemble rehearsals, and I also encourage the players to discuss things via Facebook, and to listen to recordings and to search, watch and listen on platforms such as Youtube, with its unbelievable quantity of performers and repertoire at everyone’s disposal for free. We have also begun a series of informal concerts and joint play throughs in different Caracas nucleos, spreading the word, performing for and then playing together with nucleo children of all ages. In this way the work of Espíritu can begin to filter out to everyone in El Sistema.

David France, who has just graduated as a Sistema Fellow from the New England Conservatory, came along to one of the nucleo days in April, and ambushing me with a video camera recorded a short piece of Youtubevideo that pretty accurately catches the – how shall I put this – informality of it all (See the picture below of another visit, this time to the 23 de Enero Nucleo, and a quick lesson in a corridor complete with Yeniree as impromptu music stand).

So far we have done a couple of informal concerts. There has also been talk of Espiritu playing with the Teresa Carreño when they are on tour, but actually we’re in no hurry. This is a slow burn project. Next year we will begin to add wind players and have outside directors. Then the instrument question will become more tricky.

I guess the big questions from other musicians however are likely to be, what actually happens when you are working, what are you actually trying to teach, and what specific changes, if any, are you noticing in the players techniques and style of performance?

At the moment the most important aspects of teaching as far as I am concerned relate to the bow, particularly bow speed and shape of bow stroke. We are gradually getting away from a generic horizontal bow stroke in which pretty well all of the available bow space between heel and point is used whenever possible, thereby producing a lot of fast bow speed bulges of sound as the bow speeds between heel and point, and also a fair amount of unintended portato. As a result phrases are broken up and might only last for a quaver or crotchet, thereby bearing little relation to harmonic movement. So first we are looking at the technique of making different shapes of sound with the bow, often slowing the bow speed, not using all the available length of bow, creating different shaped often ‘curved’ bow strokes, all aimed at making the bow the servant of the harmonic movement, and particularly for the upper strings who so often (and I am sure as a violinist I have been a guilty of this one) tend to have less knowledge of chord changes than bass line players.

Then there is the quality of sound. That means getting the bow to work into the string, but doing away with a pressed hard sound, unless it is being used for occasional particular effect, learning how to change bow so that the up bow comes out of the energy of the down bow. For this I find the analogy of a bouncing ball useful. Bounce a ball on the floor: you actually only touch it once, the touch as you pat it down being like a down bow. The ball bounces back up itself; it’s springing off the floor back up is thus like the up bow, which you don’t need to always ‘re-push’ in order to get it to go back up. This upbow accenting is even more the case where a down bow quaver on a strong beat is followed by two semi quavers up bows on a weak beat. Unless there is a harmonic need to the contrary, such up bows need to be light, but all I could hear to begin with was an unwanted accent on the two semi-quavers as the up bow ‘wizzed’ with too much bow speed and pressure.

Behind all of this is the need to relearn about hierarchy, taxis (a short explanation of taxis can be found here), strong and weak beats. I say relearn because I am sure that as children we have an instinctive understanding of this. So a bar of eight eighth notes (quavers to UK musicians) on the same note is characteristically played with the same stress on each eighth note. So now we are trying to find a way of ‘coming away’ from the strong beats, and when such a figure continues for a number of bars of playing the phrase over those bars according to the harmonic movement rather than as a brute sequence of equally stressed quavers. Taking away vibrato always helps this process; there are less places for the sound to hide.

Then we work on pitch as a harmonic device: lowering the thirds and sevenths notes of the scale so that intervals of a third are purer, and the third formed by playing the mediant and dominant is pure enough to use, using open strings for acoustic effect, beginning to play with temperament (a couple of basic explanations of what temperament are can be found at Wikipedia and a good one by Pierre Lewis), tuning open strings using chords rather than the modern string instrument practice of simply tuning perfect fifths. Tuning as a group not as individuals. In all of the techniques so far outlined, relearning to hear the harmonic movement is everything, so that both left and right hand techniques serve rather than overlay the harmonic line. As one of our former UK leaders should have said, ‘harmony, harmony, harmony …’.

Then there is a whole area related to communication and performance rhetoric which I would love to spend more time on, as well as the practical matter of introducing the players to a constant stream of new and wonderful repertoire.

I appreciate that to many teachers a lot of the ideas above will all appear as basic grammar. However I cannot overstate the amount of time that we are needing in order to really absorb such things. But before I get beyond this mere scratching the surface of what we are up to with our tropical melange of baroque bows and modern strings it might be useful to hear what some of the players themselves have to say. All of the players are products of Venezuela’s Sistema, and one thing for sure can be said about them: they are a dream to teach. Enthusiastic, endlessly joyful, hungry to learn, always willing to try a new idea no matter how bizarre it seems. There seems to be nowhere they won’t let you try to take them. And when harpsichordist Roger Hamilton and ‘cellist Robin Michael came with me on my first trip in October 2011, alongside their blistering enjoyment of everyone’s enthusiasm was their amazement at the speed of learning. My experience is that it is true what they say about El Sistema; on the ground I find that it does seem to produce wonderful people, a social as much as a musical example.

Bass player Carlos has been fired by the experience, including its difficulties: ‘It’s wonderful to get to know this music, and even more so in such a detailed and beautiful way. I maybe thought that this music was boring, but now seeing even a little of how great it is I love it! Beforehand I thought that one would not need to study much to play it well; but in reality it is quite the contrary. It’s a new and difficult technique to learn, but the good thing is that after studying it in this way I see and understand that it helps me with all the [different] styles, and music in general’. Violinist Karem Silva agrees with the broad benefits of the process, ‘I think it is essential for my musical education to learn to play baroque music in this style, and I enjoy getting to know a style that I was ignorant of. I hope that in the long term, apart from introducing the baroque style into my solo repertoire, that Espiritu Barroco will become a real entity of El Sistema’s orchestras, and we will be able to take it to the nucleos.

Jonás Villegas, bass player stresses the work on the bow arm, ‘what I like about this way of learning is that it helps us to play musically not just with the left hand but also with the right hand … you have to sometimes play really lightly and keep a lot of control of the bow. I hope we can develop this style more, and expand it throughout Venezuela.’ But let us end with violinist Anaïs Ribera Esteves. ‘One of my favourite composers is Bach, a real baroque composer. I believe that his music is the nearest to God, because it is capable of moving you in a solo movement of a sonata, partita, suite; it achieves completeness, peace, serenity. … but for me it is necessary to play this music as it was in this period, because if not, one loses its sense. I hope that Espíritu Barroco Venezolano can become a really specialised baroque group, with a good formation and regular concerts, and with a cultural exchange with specialists’.

Meanwhile the contest of zestful joyful Venezuelan musicality and semi chaotic ingenius invention continues. Want to know where will we be with this project a year from now? Search me. Bienvenidos a Venezuela.


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