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Changing Lives: The Musicianship, Joy, and Gorilla Masks of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

In the first of three excerpts from Tricia Tunstall's new book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, classical music producer David Waters recalls the musicianship, energy, and fun the orchestra members displayed throughout the recording sessions in the early 1990s for the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela's releases on the Dorian label.

In retrospect, one of the most surprising aspects of the story of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is that its founder and beloved leader did not remain its principal conductor. From the orchestra's very beginnings, when Carlos Chavéz took the podium at the international convention of youth orchestras in Aberdeen, Abreu's priorities have been very clear: to dedicate himself to the development of the Sistema as a whole, and to foster the musical growth of the national youth orchestra by exposing it to the world's great conductors. An ideal opportunity for such growth came in the early 1990s, when Eduardo Mata conducted the Simón Bolívar in a series of recordings for the Dorian label—recordings that testify to the young but maturing orchestra's already-signature sound, rhythmic precision, and explosive energy.

Classical music producer David Waters, who supervised the recordings for Dorian, tells me that he remembers being impressed by the young players' combination of virtuosity and high spirits. "The level of musicianship was just amazing," he says. "And their attitude was incredible. The particular pressure of recording sessions was unfamiliar to them, but they were always upbeat, always happy to do one more take."

Conductor Eduardo Mata was particularly excited by the orchestra's ability to meet the arduous demands of contemporary Latin American works. "They were willing to rehearse forever," says David Walters. "One reason Mata was so interested in working with them was that they were completely game to spend the long hours necessary to master the complex rhythms of those new pieces. He could never have gotten that with a North American orchestra."

Also striking, he says, was the sense of close camaraderie and community among orchestra members. "They were mostly from poor families, and there was a strong feeling of family," he tells me. "They were all really good friends. I never felt a sense of jealousies or animosities."

Not only did the orchestra members seem to love each other; they also loved a good joke. "They were spirited, and they loved to laugh," David Walters recollects. "I remember that one time the entire viol section came to a recording session wearing gorilla masks. We were in the control room and we turned on the video monitor, and there they were, playing away gorgeously, with their masks on. Maestro Mata enjoyed the joke for about two seconds, and then that was that.

"But they were always joking, They all had nicknames for each other, and they came up with instant nicknames for us too-I was 'Superman' and my associate engineer was 'RoboCop.' Maestro Mata was 'The Sun King.' And they were so friendly to us, inviting us to their parties and into their homes. During the rainy season one of the cellists offered to take us out to the jungle to chase alligators. Sport, you know?"

David says that Abreu often came to rehearsals and recording sessions when Maestro Mata conducted. "Whenever he came, the orchestra members would all crown around him and try for a chance to talk with him," he adds. "They had a kind of reverence for him."

What David remembers most distinctly, he tells me, is the sheer beauty of the music-making he heard among the young Venezuelans. "Once I heard a guitar quartet playing in a stairwell, in the building where we were recording," he says. "I don't know whether they were members of another orchestra or a visiting ensemble without a rehearsal room. And I didn't know the piece they were playing. The other engineers and I were going out for lunch, and we didn't have time to stop and listen—it was one of those moments you can't quite fully appreciate in the moment you experience it. But they were playing with such beautiful timbre and pitch, such perfect ensemble-such an intensity of listening and awareness and sensitivity. When I remembered it later, I understood that in that Caracas stairwell I had encountered beauty in its purest form.

Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall is published by W. W. Norton & Company.

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