I’d never attended a Sistema concert before last night. Not the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (as it was known when it visited the BBC Proms) nor any of the similar inspired groups who have sprung from music education projects across the world borne of the Venezuelan El Sistema programme.
I can confirm they are a hoot and a riot. Energy poured off the stage at the Festival Hall last night. 200 young musicians from the age of 9 to 28 from 16 countries across Europe crammed onto the stage (and at one point spilled over into the auditorium) for a gloriously uplifting performance of popular classics.
There were, as you might expect, one or two touching moments too. Watching the Intermediate Orchestra – the younger group playing Handel, Florence Pike and Artur Piazzalo with such spirit and commitment brought a lump to the throat and tears to the eyes.
When you can see people on stage a quarter of your age playing the violin with the kind of energy you see in professional orchestras, you know the genre is safe because its valued by those who are participating in it. And when those same musicians en masse start singing ‘Somewhere there’s a place for us,’ the sense of joy and relief is overwhelming.
I sat in my seat watching both Intermediate and Advanced Orchestras wondering what the criteria for membership was. Very quickly I began to realise that was a rather pointless question.
What’s refreshing about the Sistema movement (which we often forget when we’re indulging ourselves in professional music-making) is being reminded that for the vast majority of us, the real energy inherent in music is in participation compared to the passive experience of listening. That’s a salutatory
I loved the way the players in both orchestras shifted seats. Each piece saw a different violinist lead the orchestra. Older players sat alongside younger players – mentoring, teaching, and supporting. And importantly, I saw a mix of colours on stage too – incredibly reassuring to see.
But more than this, it was the energy on stage that was the real eye-opener. It was as though everyone in the Festival Hall was joining a party. When the running order came to an end, the music kept on being played. Musicians shuffled, jigged, and dived off the stage as the percussion ensemble jammed. Infectious enthusiasm and wide smiles abounded. Sheer delight.
Sistema Europe is supported by (amongst others) the Hilti Foundation, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Town Hall Birmingham, and Birmingham City University.