Music ensemble: Simón Bolívar Orchestra

The Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela is not just an ensemble of musicians, it is the zenith of a musical transformation that has provided hope for some of Venezuela’s most disadvantaged children while inspiring other orchestras worldwide

In 1975, a Venezuelan economist with a passion for music gathered together 11 young musicians to start an orchestra. At their first rehearsal, José Antonio Abreu promised that despite the basic conditions (in a garage), he would make this the nucleus for a world-class orchestra.

He did. The Símón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (SBSOV) is the newest of the world’s major orchestras. It is also the largest, with over 200 musicians and the youngest, with members between 17 and 30. It could well be the most travelled, constantly on the road for national, and international tours. The SBSOV also boasts the most animated players. In other notable symphonic ensembles, you will not find a dancing bass section twirling its instruments, brass players waving their horns or a huge body of strings swaying as if splendidly choreographed. Such are the trademarks of Bolívar encores.

Shared history

The essence of Bolívar concerts, though, is found in dug-in encounters of deep and challenging repertory, particularly the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler and Shostakovich. A swoop of the arm of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel can trigger an electrical current running through a mass of musicians all operating on the same wavelength. The result has been known to drive audiences into a frenzy never seen in quite this way in the classical concert hall.

Abreu’s goal is nothing less than to build a better Venezuela by vastly populating it with student orchestras that provide social structure and educational motivation

The fact is, the Bolívars really are on the same wavelength. This is the first orchestra of its calibre in which the players have literally grown up together. Dudamel says that 80 per cent of the musicians in the band began playing together as children in the Venezuelan National Youth Orchestra. He was one of them.

Dudamel, who is 33, says that he has known many of the players most of his life. He and the Bolívar concertmaster Alejandro Carreño, for instance, are old friends, and Carreño, himself, is the son of one of Abreu’s original 11, whom Abreu also recruited to form his El Sistema, the famed educational system now serving hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan students. When Dudamel rehearses the Bolívars, he addresses the players as amigos.

Abreu once told me that as a boy he never liked to practise alone. He was motivated, by musical camaraderie, and he made that the essence of El Sistema. Children under five begin by making cardboard instruments and observing students a couple of years older in kiddy orchestras. The children learn together, the more advanced students helping coach elementary ones. Abreu also believes the orchestral musicians develop most quickly when they are able to pay full attention to the conductor, so the children memorise many scores as they learn them.

Simon Bolivar Orchestra
Dudamel played with the orchestra in the UAE earlier this yearImage: Corbis

Abreu’s goal is nothing less than to build a better Venezuela by populating it with student orchestras that provide social structure and educational motivation and El Sistema has transformed the lives of some of the nation’s most disadvantaged children. Abreu went so far as to get music education written into his country’s constitution as a right of the people. El Sistema is open to all children who are willing to make a commitment to music, with some students beginning as young as four years old and remaining in the programme throughout their schooling. Crucially, all participation is free. These orchestras create a unique sense of orchestral camaraderie among the players.

Family bond

A conductor in great demand, Dudamel is in his fifth season as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has close ties to the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic. But the Bolívars, he emphasises, are different. They are family.

The other advantage of El Sistema’s network is that with almost 400,000 students, the odds are excellent for spotting talent. Moreover, the infrastructure exists to then nurture it. The best musicians are invited to play in national youth orchestras in Caracas, where they can then move up the ladder with the top being a place in the Símon Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

Simon Bolivar Orchestra
'El Sistema' has inspired countries around the world to start their own youth orchestras including the Heart of Los Angeles Orchestra in the USImage: Corbis

As these players and Dudamel developed, they began to gain an international reputation through tours and recordings. They worked with the likes of Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle. They encouraged other countries to try their hand at their own Sistemas. Dudamel founded two youth orchestras in LA – YOLA and HOLA. Others have sprung up in Sweden, Scotland, Brazil and many other places.

But the Bolívars inevitably also got older, too old to be a youth orchestra but much too successful to disband. So, in yet another experiment three years ago, Abreu turned them professional, dropping the Youth from the name and the age limit.

A new youth orchestra has been formed as the sister orchestra to the SBSOV – the Teresa Carreńo Youth Orchestra. What kind of orchestra the SBSOV will eventually evolve into is anyone’s guess. For now, it makes history every day, and it is poised to keep doing so.