Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

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November 10, 2007

Photo: mine
It’s been a busy week for me, which is not that surprising. It has also been a busy week for the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their maestro Gustavo Dudamel who are skating across the US in a series of sold out concerts that seem to elicit tears in grown men everywhere. (Not unlike formaldehyde.) Fawning reviews and commentary have appeared in both print and digital worlds. Even I have not been immune from this phenomenon as evidenced by the overwhelming response my posts on the two SBYOV programs in LA. In these items, I raised questions not only about the musical quality of the overall performance but some of the problematic political overtones as well. In fact, the LA Times' own Mark Swed echoes some of the questions I raised last week in a follow-up piece to his initial reviews about all the Dudamel “buzz” around town. Swed also uses his current article to make some important arguments about music education and the positive lessons that can be learned from el sistema, the Venezuelan model of youth orchestras founded under José Antonio Abreu. We are told that Dudamel’s appearances and upcoming appointment to the LA Philharmonic are acting as a springboard for revitalizing music education in this city and that people are talking. That is all fine and well and if these appearances result in more opportunities for talented young musicians, that’s great.

But what I take issue with here is his notion that "the Venezuelans" represent something new. If what we saw here is any indication, it is beyond me what is specifically so “new” about the Venezuelan model. The is certainly nothing new about programming Beethoven, Bernstein, and Mahler. Nor is there anything radically different about doubling the size of an orchestra to play them in the most overwrought format imaginable. The idea of public and governmental support for arts training is also not new - in fact, people in the US have done their best to dismantle anything that used to resemble it over the last few decades. And as for those excited by spinning cellos or synchronized horn movements, head on out to any local American high school football field at mid-game on a Friday night - your mind will be frigging blown.

What is in fact new, is the PT Barnum-inspired ability for critics and commentators to abandon their senses in the face of the PR onslaught. Clear faults in the performances are frequently acknowledged and then just as quickly swept away on a wave of youthful good feelings. Of course this is part of the draw of performance. Nothing is ever perfect but some combination of elements that create a general sensation of the whole. But virtually all commentary on the SBYOV performances to date has been particularly forgiving of youthful digressions that would be used to tar and feather others.

Of course, as is usually the case, all of this glowing warmth tells us much more about us than them. El Sistema is attractive and inspirational precisely because it feeds into our bourgeois Eurocentric fantasy of the poor unwashed masses being saved by Western high art. Suddenly every music writer in America has latched on to Music of the Heart as an inspirational paradigm. The SBYOV are so well received not simply because of what they sound like, but the idea of who they are and where they have come from. Writers make hay of how these youth were prevented from joining "gangs or worse" by classical music. Part of the reason we in the US, and Europe, are so fascinated by SBYOV and the organization behind it is because it validates our own aesthetics and by extension ourselves. A little moody Mahler, a little booming Shostakovich, and suddenly our economic and political disparities are addressed as easily as some careful tuning of strings. This is the same kind of jingoistic thinking that compels millions to watch the Olympics every four years and look at all the peace and good will that it has generated. The success of the SBYOV in America is hardly a threat to the status quo in classical music, it is the actual validation of all that already exists.

Certainly access to music education for those with interest and talent is an important thing. Abreu and el sistema are clearly a wonderful thing for the many people who have benefited from it. And while the education and development of the young are always beautiful things, "Dudamelmania" is little more than us feeling good about ourselves. A mind (or talent) is, indeed a terrible thing to waste. And apparently for some, if that preservation can be done in such an entertaining and tear-inducing way - that's all the better.



i think one of the more important points that mark swed was trying to make is that venezuela has created a created a pretty good orchestral training program that encourages participation for all. contrast this to the "elite" path that is promoted to many of our own young students; private lessons, summer camp, music conservatory, and master class, which obviously limits the pool of musicians that will articulate into performing.
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