“A choice between a musical instrument and a gun”

Alisa Weilerstein, the wonderful young American cellist, is playing at the Wigmore Hall tomorrow night. My interview with her was in last week’s JC, though I didn’t realise until yesterday because Google Alerts didn’t alert me. Read the whole thing here.

Alisa has been to Venezuela a number of times to work with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and El Sistema. Here’s what she says about it:

“Some 400,000 children are involved in El Sistema in a country where 60 per cent of the population is below the poverty line,” Weilerstein says. “It was developed as a social programme to bring art to the masses, not as education for the elite. That’s how it ought to be: people should be able to take it for granted that we have music in our homes and our schools. Its founder, José Antonio Abreu, has managed to secure government sponsorship for it since 1975 and it is entirely state funded. A lot of the kids would have faced a choice between a musical instrument and a gun.” 

Yesterday I was lucky enough to bump, twice, into the Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra of Venezuela – the little sister of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, but every bit as committed and, well, Latin about things. In the morning they played in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer for a group of English schoolchildren, some of whom joined in; violinist Nicola Benedetti was there to play some of the Bach Double Concerto with the orchestra’s leader.

Wow – these youngster really go for it. They give the music absolutely everything. They love it, audibly. I stood just behind the double basses and experienced a sort of musical massage for the inner organs as the vibrations shook the foyer. During the break, I passed two young horn players standing together practising a duet: back-to-front baseball caps, sweat shirts, brilliant techniques and musical instincts that wouldn’t have disgraced the finest from central Europe. Then in the evening the youngsters were out in force for the LPO gig, giving the good ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra the standing ovation of their lives. Even Tom looked surprised. They electrified the atmosphere just by being there and being expressive. Catch them tonight in concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

Why are we so hooked on Venezuelan music-making? I think Shakespeare has the answer. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings…” These young musicians don’t half make us look like a bunch of glum, repressed Victorians. Through their zest for life and passion for music, they show us not just how to make music but how to appreciate being alive. Which, really, is the point of music.

It is of course ironic that we are all going dewy-eyed over them just at the point at which we as a nation are ready to deny tertiary education in such things as music to all but the very richest in the land. Maybe this country won’t understand that depriving its people of the hope of a good education is a seriously terrible idea until it, too, has reached a point where its youngsters are so desperate that they have only a choice between a musical instrument and a gun.

Mark Steel put it well in yesterday’s Indy, so I will hand you over to him now and shut up because I’m too depressed to do otherwise.

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