The Simon Bolívar Orchestra at Carnegie Hall: A Response to Critics

Carnegie Hall opened its season in early October with three performances by the Simon Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela, led by Gustavo Dudamel. The Simon Bolívar is the flagship orchestra of Venezuela’s national music education program, El Sistema; Dudamel is the Sistema’s most prominent alumnus. Two New York Times music critics, Zachary Woolfe and Anthony Tommasini, have weighed in on their Carnegie performances. Both say: thumbs down.

What’s striking about these reviews is that they are not so much about the music as about the appropriateness of the orchestra’s appearance here. Woolfe’s review, entitled “Fiddling While Venezuela Starves,” criticizes the players for their evident enjoyment of playing beautiful music in a legendary setting. “The musicians were visibly having the time of their lives,” he writes. “You would never know these artists’ home country is grievously suffering.” Woolfe devotes a brief (unenthusiastic) paragraph to the music, and spends the rest of his piece explaining why New York audiences should reconsider our welcome of the orchestra, given that Venezuela is in the midst of political and economic upheavals under a repressive government.

There’s validity to Woolfe’s more general point that throughout history, classical listeners have needed to “check their moral compasses” whenever musicians, producers or sponsors represent morally reprehensible entities. But he’s mistaken to press this point with regard to the players of the Simon Bolívar Orchestra, who represent a national music education program that has been funded, since its founding in 1975, by seven governments ranging from leftist to centrist to far-right. Under every one of these regimes, El Sistema has been providing intensive, immersive ensemble music training for children across the country, regardless of talent or ability to pay. For the musicians of the Simon Bolívar, all of whom spent years in this program, El Sistema has meant not a political orientation but a haven of ensemble learning, peer and mentoring support, and musical vitality.

That vitality seems to be what particularly inflames Woolfe: he calls them “the grinning, charming Simon Bolívar Orchestra.” Would their country be better served if they wiped those grins off their faces and played stone-faced? Would its economic and political travails somehow lessen if they abandoned musical pleasure, or if they didn’t tour at all? I tend to think not. These young musicians know well — far better than Carnegie patrons, no matter how stern our moral compasses — the suffering of their countrymen and women. They came to New York to perform their distinctive renditions of music they clearly love. They returned home the next day to struggling families and communities who feel pride and joy in their accomplishments, and they continue to play and teach music, even in the context of turmoil. It’s difficult to call these immoral choices.

Anthony Tommasini’s critique of the orchestra is obliquely about politics but more directly about professionalism. Citing what he considered disappointing playing, he says that the decision to turn the orchestra from a student ensemble into a professional group “may have been a miscalculation,” and suggests that they should forget about professionalism and have a revolving youth membership so that “new student musicians keep getting their turns to break out.”

Tommasini is working from a “pro vs. youth” dichotomy that doesn’t exist in Venezuela in the way that it does in the U.S. The fact is that the Simon Bolívar has never had a revolving membership: even when they were a youth orchestra, they were basically the same group of youths, starting out as precocious young teenagers and maturing together over years. The premise of El Sistema is that learning within ensemble is a collective experience of cooperation toward beauty, and that orchestra members develop enduring bonds through years of doing this together. El Sistema gives new student musicians plenty of turns to break out — by creating successive new orchestras for each new generation, including the Teresa Carreno Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, and the Children’s Orchestra of Venezuela.

As for the musical quality of the orchestra’s Carnegie performances: yes, there were flaws. But there was also some ravishing playing: the darkly sensuous string textures, melodic eloquence and kinetic force that have always distinguished this orchestra are still there. It’s surprising that rather than recognizing that the less-than-perfect playing may have been attributable to the musicians’ challenging life circumstances — in particular, the difficulty of pursuing rehearsal-as-usual in a social crisis context — both reviewers choose to blame the players for being in the wrong relationship with their own country’s misfortunes.

Also unacknowledged by both is that in addition to their more familiar repertoire choices, Dudamel and his colleagues brought a number of concert-worthy but less well-known works to New York audiences. They played Carnegie premières not only of Villa-Lobos’s colorful, exotic Bachianas brasileiras №2, but also of two luminous works by largely unknown Venezuelan composers, Juan Carlos Nuñez and Paul Desenne. One of the many contributions of Dudamel and the Simon Bolívar Orchestra to the classical concert world of North America and Europe has been to widen our experience of the richness of Latin American orchestral music.

From the beginning, El Sistema’s motto has always been “tocar y luchar” — to play and to struggle. The politics of art is a vastly complex matter. Before we pass judgment on how this unique group of young musicians handles it, we should try to understand the concrete meaning, in their lives, of struggling and playing — and to recognize the spirit of seeking solace and joy through music, in the face of hard times, that forms the core ethos of El Sistema.

Their playing is imperfect. Their country is in chaos. Still, they choose to play. They come to Carnegie Hall not to proselytize but to share what music means to them. I would suggest that this is as valid a moral choice as any a New York concertgoer might be inclined to offer.

Tricia Tunstall is the co-author, with Eric Booth, of Playing For Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement For Social Change Through Music (W.W. Norton, September 2016). Also the author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music and Note By Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson, Tunstall is a leading advocate for the seminal importance of music and arts education in children’s development. She researches and consults with El Sistema programs around the world. A lifelong music educator and journalist, she maintains a piano studio in the New York area.

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