Youth Choir Demonstrates Continuing Success of El Sistema

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Simón Bolívar Youth Choir, Lourdes Sánchez (conductor): St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.4.2014 (PCG)

Prayer and Poetry
Tomás Luis de Victoria – Quam pulchri sunt
Thomas Morley – Sing we and chant it
Claudio Monteverdi – Ecco mormorar l’onde
Josef Rheinberger – Abendlied
Randall Thompson – Alleluia
Felix Mendelssohn – Denn er hat seinen Engeln befolhlen
Frank Martin – Mass for double choir: Kyrie
Josep Vita i Casañas – Salve Regina


Venezuelan breeze
Modesta Bor – Coplas de Cuna
Eduardo Plaza – Nocturno
Antonio Estévez – Canción de la molinera
José Antonio Calcaño – Evohé
Antonio Estévez – Mata del ánima sola
Federico Ruiz – El Santiguao
Modesta Bor – Fulia de Cumaná
Pablo Camacaro – Patatin, patatin
Rafael Suárez – El Guapo


“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Sir Thomas Beecham to an audience who had been provided with a set of incorrect programme listings, “we will now with your permission perform the piece you think you have just heard.” He could have made the same observation regarding this concert, where of the seven items advertised in the advance publicity three had gone missing during the actual performance, and two of the items in the programme on sale were omitted while others were given in a different order. Since no announcements or explanations about this were forthcoming, this must have left a considerable number of listeners perplexed as to what exactly they were listening to.

Never mind: this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert, in which the hundred-member choir which emerged from Venezuela’s sistema demonstrated a wide versatility and admirable ensemble. The programme opened enterprisingly with three renaissance masterpieces, and the choir made an immediate impact with their resonant blend of voices in Victoria’s Quam pulchri sunt, although more fluidity of the individual lines would not have come amiss. It was however lovely to hear the polyphony delivered by a large choir, no matter how inauthentic; and the rhythmic precision was impressive also in the Morley and Monteverdi madrigals, with exquisite shading of the texts (although it would have been valuable if the programme had provided these). Rheinberger’s Abendlied would also have benefited from understanding of the words, but the performance was beautifully poised; and Randall Thompson’s Alleluia was distinguished by superbly controlled dynamic contrasts. After that we skipped over the listed Frank Martin Kyrie to Mendelssohn’s choral work, later incorporated into his oratorio Elijah; and some rearrangement of the stage (which went like clockwork with minimal disruption) provided us with a double choir for the Martin and the Salve Regina by Casañas where the elaborate choral divisions, including a vibrant uncredited mezzo-soprano solo, were capably handled. During this reorganisation however the advertised Ave maria stella by Trond Kverno went unaccountably missing altogether.

The second half of the concert, entitled Venezuelan breeze, was not at all the light programme that the title might have led one to expect. Rather it formed a conspectus of the work of a number of modern Venezuelan composers, of whom only Estévez and Ruiz are at all well known (Peter Reynolds’s informative booklet notes told us that two of the composers involved had careers in the diplomatic service). Of these the Nocturno by Eduardo Plaza, a work for male voices only, was an impressive evocation of night although yet again one would really have liked to have the text provided in order to appreciate it fully. This work would be a gift to the repertory of Welsh male choirs; but unfortunately, despite the reputation enjoyed by the Welsh as a national of choral singers, the audience was miserably small with vast areas of seating almost totally untenanted. Those who did attend were highly enthusiastic, as indeed they should have been; but it was a great pity there were not more of them.

The evening concluded with a number of folksong arrangements with guitar accompaniment, although the instrument sounded rather lost in the spaces of the hall; and we heard two tenor soloists (again uncredited) representing the “voice of the llaneros” (men of the plains) whose voices were rock-solid and full of character. Again in this part of the programme one of the listed items – El Alcaraván by Simón Diaz – seemed to have gone missing, but this may well have been one of the two unidentified encores with which we were provided at the end of the evening.

The concert as a whole left one full of admiration for the results which have been achieved by the Venezuelan sistema, as much so as the renowned work of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. (One hopes that the successes of the sistema will be permitted to receive continuing investment following the death of the charismatic Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez last year.) The choir had a fully adult tone with a strong bass section which belied the age of the participants, and the individual soloists really deserved to be identified by name. Perhaps the choir should consider the employment of a compère to introduce the items and performers to foreign audiences. As I have said, the audience was small, but properly enthusiastic, and cheered the choir to the rafters at the end.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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