Is it a good concert experience when the event really only catches alight in the encores? That was exactly my experience at London’s Royal Festival Hall last night when the Simon Bolivar National Youth Choir gave a concert as part of two concurrent festivals, the “Pull Out the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the hall’s magnificent 8,000 pipe organ, and the “Chorus” festival “celebrating the power of singing together” and involving participatory workshops running over a week.
The conjunction of these two festivals could possible explain a rather unusual, even bizarre, piece of programme planning which involved no less than three full settings of the Roman Catholic Mass sung consecutively, each for full choir and organ accompaniment. The rarely heard Requiem Mass setting by Venezualen composer Juan Batista Plaza was followed by settings of the Missa Brevis by Britten and Kodaly, with Mendelssohn’s “O for the Wings of a Dove” based on Psalm 55 thrown in for good measure.
This is a group of 100 magnificent full-throated voices, yet I got the experience of struggle, as if they were trying to inhabit an ill-fitting suit. Part of it might simply have been under-rehearsal. The choir is on a UK tour with a punishing schedule, and involving other concerts which don’t include these particular works. There were a few ragged moments in the ensemble, and signs of vocal exhaustion, particularly from some of the soloists drawn from within the choir. Part of it also might have been the Royal Festival Hall’s notoriously punishing and clinical acoustic. I have sung on that stage several times and it is – to say the least - a challenging vocal experience. The hall offers no warmth or resonance to a singer at all, and one can feel exposed, unsupported, and “out on a limb”. In that context the frequent application by the choir’s director of a detached “portamento” approach, which in a more generous acoustic might have come across as highlighting the articulation and the line, came across as ugly and unmusical.
But deeper than these specifics was a strong sense I got that much of this music was simply not “in the bones” of these singers, that they were struggling to inhabit a musical world which was not familiar to them and didn’t allow them to shine. There was a huge amount of tension manifest, which resulted in a stiff and unyielding effect, both aurally and visually. Director Lourdes Sanchez seemed ill-at-ease and offered very few expressive cues for her singers, concentrating on large and somewhat inflexible beats, as if she was worried that without this the performance would go adrift. This reflected itself in the singers’ demeanour. Many of them simply looked (and sounded) worried for much of the time.
Thank goodness that the sympathetic audience gave enough support to encourage four short encores – which I didn’t recognize but seemed drawn more from an Latin American folk ambience. For me, the real concert began then. It was as if shackles had dropped, and everyone became themselves. The organ was switched off, a female choir member stepped from the ranks, sat down on a stool, and played a guitar accompaniment with direct effectiveness. Sheet music was set aside and the pieces were sung from memory. Choir members smiled – made eye contact with the audience and each other, and began to fully inhabit their bodies. For the last two numbers Ms Sanchez stopped conducting, joined the front row of the sopranos, and sang along with them, looking happy and relaxed. Ensemble difficulties melted away (even in complex poly-rhythmic sections sung without a conductor), and voices became mellifluous and seductive. The audience responded in kind, with whoops and cheers, and people getting up out of their seats, and in those last 20 minutes the hall “rocked”. That was - at last - live choral music making at its best.
This choir is one of the many manifestations of the vast El Sistema empire that has received huge international attention and support for its groundbreaking work with the disadvantaged youth of Venezuala, now being replicated in “franchised” projects around the world. This choir is the pinnacle of a complex multi-levelled pyramid of local youth choirs around the country, with last night’s choristers having been selected as being the best of the best, city by city, and having being supported into burgeoning careers as young music professionals. What El Sistema has achieved in transforming the lives of thousands of young people is uncontestable. However, whatever the personal background, and however deep the early disadvantage, when a choir of experienced young adult performers (and I estimated ages being from 18 to late 30s) show up on the stage of London’s premier symphony hall to perform pieces from the mainstream European classical repertoire, they have to be judged by what they bring on the day – and judged in comparison with who else might have been heard on that very stage performing those very works.
It’s pretty hard to bring something special or distinctive to either Britten or Mendelssohn choral music in a country and continent that majors on both. The performances we heard last night were competent but unremarkable. Many British and European choirs could have done as well or better. What could not have been approached by most English choirs, however, was the spirit of solidarity, warmth, even passion, which shone out from this choir when allowed, finally, to be itself in the music which it has taken to its collective heart.
London’s South Bank shares with El Sistema many characteristics. They are both huge state-invested juggernauts, with an incredibly complex mix of public and private stakeholders, patrons, and multi-dimensional economic, political and artistic priorities and expectations. They are both no doubt hugely over-committed and over-invested. The sheer variety of events and initiatives that involve the South Bank, even in a single month, is dizzying and overwhelming. And lots of what they try is innovative, experimental, out-on-a-limb, magnificent. And bravo to them for that. Any adventurous and experimental organisation will have successes and failures, a mixture of the fabulous and the unmemorable. Ditto for El Sistema.
But it is still sad to see a situation which apparently sets up a world-class choir to be less than world-class by shoehorning it into the demands of programming priorities which seemed more to do with allowing the hall to show off its undoubtedly magnificent organ rather than being designed to reflect the nature of this remarkable choir, or reflect the interests and expectations of those who booked to attend, drawn mainly I would imagine – as I was - by the allure and reputation of the Simon Bolivar brand, as exemplified through the stunning and world-class achievements of the Orchestra of the same name under its director Gustavo Dudamel. I had no idea, until I showed up in the room, that there was even going to be organ music at this event.
It was also – to me - a rather sad visual symbol of the cultural contradictions inherent in this concert that the choristers were wearing clothes that represent the most conservative and establishment-oriented portion of the performing arts world: dress suits and white bow ties for the men, black ballroom gowns for the women. This is garb that many contemporary choirs (particularly youth choirs) are finding elegant ways to evolve from or leave behind. It just doesn’t make sense for a choir from a country with its own rich and vibrant culture of dress and body language to attempt, unsuccessfully, to adopt a “frozen in time” European stage persona whose heyday was half a century or more ago. Such decisions become more and more culturally and artistically problematic as the years pass.
I love the European classical music tradition and want it to survive and flourish. But this will only happen when musicians from the contemporary cultures that interact with it are encouraged and enabled to approach it from a secure and authentic grounding in their own artistic and cultural heritage which breathes new and authentic life into it. Sadly, this choir somehow left its musical soul at the door last night, whether at the behest of South Bank artistic management, internal politics within El Sistema, or both. It isn’t easy to know how to be culturally authentic in an age of globalization and post-colonialism. But there is one sure barometer of success, and that is audience reaction and engagement. During the pre-announced programme the character of the audience could be described as polite, cool, and a little "absent". During the un-announced post-concert, we became as involved, engaged, and “fully present” as the singers finally did.
By the simple expedient of changing the frame, the same people in the same room created two very different events; the first being ordinary and the second being remarkable. What an object lesson that is for all of us who think and care about making live music as good as it can be !