The Age of Enlightenment: Venezuela's Thrilling Youth Ensemble Proves to Be Far More Than a Novelty Act

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Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Rather improbably, the Venezuelan youth orchestra named after an Enlightenment freedom fighter has stunned the music world with its success. The system, El Sistema, which produced it and 150 others in Venezuela, has not only got kids playing musical instruments, it has also recruited some of them from the slums. Some of the players are former gangsters, apparently. In London this past week, they made the front page of the Times in their red-yellow-and-blue blousons as they twice sold out the Royal Festival Hall.

This is no small chamber orchestra. The players almost overflowed the stage, with violinists nine-deep. How they managed to dance during the encores without knocking the music stands flying is a mystery. That's when they don those jackets, only to throw them off again and into the crowd like triumphant footballers, usually after their calling-card encore, Bernstein's brassy, thrilling Mambo.

Some people think that's all they play. But they brought Bartok, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and three South American composers: Revueltas, Estevez and Castellanos. The ambassadors, all under 21, sense the most complicated rhythms as easily as Latin dances under their charismatic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, himself an El Sistema product. They lean forward into the beat, which pulses visibly through the ranks.

Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra suits them with its darting Hungarian pulse, long folk melodies and roles for numerous wind soloists. There was not a single unsynchronised entry. In the magical second movement, "Games of the Couples", the duets snaked their bubbling phrases with parallel, sinewy contortions. In the delicate, quick movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, Dudamel stopped conducting with his arms, stood still and nodded in the entries, demonstrating at once both matchless control and how intense an undemonstrative beat can be. Each pizzicato pinged as one, though 90 musicians played it.

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The orchestra's tone colour is vibrant, variegated and exciting, though it just lacks that deep patina which comes from years of playing. …