A few years ago I was given the task of screening around 70 videos of young conductors applying to be John Nelson’s assistant with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. What I saw was predictably a mixture of the good, the bad and … the unspeakable, but among the batch were several unmistakably excellent musicians, including one extremely young budding French maestro who instantly gained our plaudits and those of the orchestra – Lionel Bringuier. Clearly endowed with a spontaneous and wholly unpretentious natural talent, but with a maturity far beyond his years, I particularly remember the acuity of his remarks during the rehearsals of my piece Pursued by Bronze Horsemen, which John and the EOP premièred at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées back in May 2006. Six months later Lionel, then aged 20, was appointed as assistant conductor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now has guest engagements conducting many of the world’s greatest orchestras (New York Philharmonic, Cleveland, BBC Symphony …). He has been in the news recently for rescuing the concert in Disney Hall on May 6 when the LA Phil’s music director pulled a neck muscle in the middle of the concert – a music director himself only Bringuier’s senior by six years – Gustavo Dudamel. So effectively the concert on May 6 was shared between one of the Old World’s brightest conducting hopes and one who is clearly becoming an agent of radical transformation in the New World. Note my words: I’m not saying ‘who is transforming’, which might imply that Dudamel has arrived on the podium in order to impose an individual vision from without. Instead, as his leadership of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is currently demonstrating to audiences on a triumphant European tour, Dudamel has emerged from within a transformational program (known as El Sistema) which has now been revolutionizing Venezuelan society for three decades. He himself freely acknowledges that he is a product of that program, one in which the relationship between conductor and orchestra is based not on a hierarchical dynamic of domination, but rather of deep solidarity.
El Sistema , a vision for transforming a country through music education set out by the Catholic conductor, economist and former Minster of Culture José Antonio Abreu (b. 1939), has been attracting increasing attention not only in Latin America but elsewhere, with figures such as Sir Simon Rattle going as far as to refer to it as the most important development anywhere in today’s musical world. In this series of posts I will be considering some aspects of Abreu’s thinking in terms of the relationship between art, religion and society, and the way in which Dudamel’s unique style of musical leadership arises out of and embodies a philosophy of the human person in community which is profoundly linked to Christian faith. For the moment, here is a quotation from Abreu taken from the documentary film ‘Tocar y luchar’ (‘Play and Struggle’ – the motto of El Sistema) on the subject of art as revelation, which clearly shows how his highly concrete social program is derived from what classical Christian theology describes as the unity of the transcendentals – God as the ultimate source of the Beautiful, the Good and the True:
‘What do people feel? A revelation. God reveals something, something ineffable, something that cannot be penetrated by rationality, that is only penetrable by intuition. It is that young person who, penetrated by music, challenged by the musical impulse of the tasks of the orchestra, begins a psychological transformation. We must let ourselves be moved by that art that brings us together – through music, plastic arts, literature, cinema – and begin to recognize ourselves in our essences, our identity – through art, which is the only world where we can find the true revelation of our being. The authentic being is revealed through art as a bearer of beauty, goodness, and truth.’