Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at Royal Festival Hall – Beethoven 5 & Prokofiev 5

Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Christian Vásquez

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 12 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The El Sistema bandwagon rolls on and arrived in London to open Southbank Centre’s latest Shell Classic International season. After the worldwide phenomenon that is the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, here was proof that the musical miracle that has given a first-class musical education to around a million young Venezuelan people since 1975, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, continues to flourish. The Teresa Carreño Orchestra, basically the next generation of musicians behind those from the Simón Bolivar band are aged between 12 and 18. To achieve this level of musical competence at these ages is indeed a remarkable achievement and how refreshing it is to see so many young people from such diverse ethnic groups performing with such enthusiasm and at such a high level. Teresa Carreño concerts comes with all the trimmings: hugely enthusiastic and partisan audiences, wildly patriotic and exuberant encores (three here – Tico, Tico and then rowdy numbers by Ginastera and Bernstein complete with Venezuelan flags and nifty twirling of the double basses). Not everybody’s idea about how to follow Beethoven and Prokofiev, but the audience loved it and the musicians were in Heaven.

The fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Prokofiev might sound a daunting task for musicians so young but from the very first bars of the Beethoven you became aware that these young people play music not just with passion and enthusiasm but also with a great deal of technical skill. With all sections of the orchestra doubled in size, the sound was overblown, but the ear quickly gets accustomed. Christian Vásquez wisely adopted sensible tempos throughout, the opening Allegro con brio briskly taken but not too fast, the Andante was elegantly phrased and flowed delicately, the finale blazed gloriously. One can carp about details glossed over and the lack of subtlety in some of the playing but there seems little that captures these musicians out. One could expect to find musicians of this age exposed during quieter passages but the levels of intonation and ensemble were very impressive by any standards with fine wind-playing in the second movement and characterful horns at the opening of the scherzo. The outer movements developed real tension with Vásquez building to a terrifically exciting finale.

Unfortunately the Prokofiev rather missed its mark due mostly to some idiosyncratic interpretation by Vásquez. His stop-start approach in the first movement disturbed the momentum so there was no real sense of inevitability. The scherzo was far too quick, rushed., intonation and ensemble suffering, especially in the violins. Redemption came with some achingly beautiful string-playing in the third movement but here again Vásquez lost his way, the orchestra by this time also sounding tired. The finale was light and fast but there was a lack of wit and bite and, throughout, one never really got the impression that conductor or orchestra really understood what this symphony was about. A disappointment, yes, but that shouldn’t detract from the achievement of El Sistema and the phenomenally talented musicians it produces.

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