By Simon Behrman
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Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra

This article is over 14 years, 3 months old
Mahler: Symphony No 5
Issue 318

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela has burst onto the classical music scene over the last couple of years. Formed in 1975 it struggled for most of its existence until the rise of Hugo Chavez’s government and the popular movements. It now has permanent public funding which has allowed it to grow and travel the world with its performances.

Made up of young people from the barrios, who are given instruments and tuition for free, it has been credited with giving hundreds of thousands of poor kids a chance to escape poverty, drugs and crime.

This summer they electrified the audience at the BBC Proms, winning universal acclaim from the critics. If you missed it, now is your chance to discover their unique sound with this new recording. Symphony is extremely hard to perform convincingly. Its structure is unwieldy and highly unorthodox, and many great conductors and orchestras have trouble making this piece come alive.

For an orchestra made up of 16 to 20 year olds conducted by Gustavo Dudamel – who is only 25 – to attempt this work seems insanely ambitious. But, incredibly, they manage to pull it off… just. Throughout there are an audible passion and attack which are rare among most orchestras today. Too often now interpreters are afraid or unable to stamp their individuality on performances of the classics. This is definitely not the case here.

If I have one criticism it is with their playing of the famous Adagietto movement which features in Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice and was played at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Mahler intended it as a love song, not a funeral dirge as it is performed here.

But overall this recording, and indeed the whole project, is truly awe inspiring. With most performances of classical music today played as if going through the motions with players slouched in their seats it is easy to predict the death of European classical music. But the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra shows how passion and commitment can keep this music alive.

No lesser people than the former and current musical directors of the Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, have hailed the orchestra as the future of classical music. For socialists everywhere it is particularly satisfying that this future is illuminated by poor kids from the slums combined with a radical popular movement while the elitists who dominate the classical music industry are left floundering and irrelevant.

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