Young Goan violinist Stefi Cruz has just done Child’s Play India Foundation and indeed her country proud by representing us, playing violin in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra last week. The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and Choir are a creation of the Commonwealth Music Partnership, which has Queen Elizabeth II as Diamond Jubilee Patron, and Maestro Zubin Mehta as Music Patron. The orchestra and choir gave three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014.
It is significant that a meeting of nations and people, whether for sport or for anything else, should also be marked by performances by an instrumental and choral ensemble. The orchestra and choir can be viewed as a microcosm of society, and indeed in the wider sense, of the ‘society’ or ‘community’ of nations.
This belief has been the motivation of José Antonio Abreu, founder in 1975 of El Sistema Venezuela, the revolutionary music education programme that is now sweeping across the world. From its beginning, he has pursued the utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all. The Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country.
In his 2007 TED Prize lecture, Abreu stated, “In its essence, the orchestra and the choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids.”
World-renowned Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim is co-founder along with the late Palestinian literary scholar Eduard Said of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries to enable intercultural dialogue through the experience of making music.
In his view, the orchestra is “a group of individuals, each with their own freedom and responsibility to express themselves, but each also having to listen to and engage with others in the group. In addition, the conductor, as a leader to this group, will not be successful unless she or he understands the orchestra, and unless the individuals in the orchestra understand her or him. This relationship is based on shared trust and equality among all members of the group, and is broken when defined by power and individuality alone. When the orchestra plays a composition, no individual is a leading voice at all times, and the music changes and develops, passing through periods of stillness and madness, but what defines a great orchestra is harmony and understanding among its members, and this creates beauty for its listeners. These lessons have the power to reach well beyond the language and study of music, to the spheres of politics, economics, media, education, and culture.”
This is so true. In an orchestra, it doesn’t matter if you are concertmaster doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’, or the timpanist with the occasional crash-bang-wallop or a few turns in the triangle. For a musical work to achieve fruition, every individual contribution is just as necessary as that of the next. The sopranos in a choir are not more or less important than the tenors or basses. Isn’t this how a society should be as well, where the contribution of each citizen is deemed just as valuable, and their rights are equally sacrosanct, regardless of clout or money power? And in the community of nations, the poorest and weakest nation deserves as much respect, dignity and voice as the rich and powerful?
The other parallel is the important virtue of listening. It is not just the audience, or the ‘listener’, who listens. The performance of music is a constant dialogue between the musicians, and their ability to listen attentively and intelligently and respond appropriately is what distinguishes a great performance from a pedestrian one, and a cohesive ensemble from a hastily cobbled group.
Listening in this way also implies empathy. If the cellos and double basses have their noses buried in the score and inadvertently begin to crank up the tempo, oblivious to the difficult passage the poor violin section have to therefore hurry through as a result, it can be disastrous. Similarly, a good conductor will allow a woodwind soloist to literally ‘breathe’ at strategic points in a long soulful legato passage or it will fall to pieces.
Lessons learned in the rehearsal room and the concert hall can easily be extrapolated to life outside these locations. This is the genesis of social change. In the words of my friend and Abreu Fellow Jonathan Andrew Govias: “Social change starts with the individual. All of us want to be needed and respected and valued. We can create that environment within the classroom, the home, or the orchestra – but in the orchestra, most easily, because the art is the higher calling, it inspires while it gratifies, and the rules of the game are simpler and fairer”.
This is certainly a belief held by Gustavo Dudamel, wunderkind conductor and product of El Sistema, and currently at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: “It [El Sistema’s ensemble experience] has changed not just the lives of the individuals involved – but also of their families, the communities around the children.”
“And it changed because they have access to beauty; to sensitivity; to creativity; and to discipline. We are talking here about the elements of a good citizen.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 June 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)