The Bolivars Bring Their New Sound to Russia

Christian Vasquez conducting the SBOV in Moscow – Zarryadye Concert Hall. Copyright Zaryadye Concert Hall

by Anis Barnat, Associate Project Manager, Askonas Holt, and Founder, El Sistema Greece

The Bolívars are back!

In December 2019, the 155-member Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, led by Maestro Christian Vasquez, were invited to perform in Russia. It was the first official tour since March 2017 for this orchestra, and a real celebration for their return to the international scene.

For this tour, the repertoire chosen was a selection of South American flavors along with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. The Latin American first half opened with a contemporary piece by Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne (Hipnosis Mariposa) and the El Sistema classic Tres versiones sinfónicas, by Julián Orbón. Bringing Tchaikovsky to Russian soil is a courageous statement, as it shows the respect the orchestra has for the host country, and the Venezuelan determination to bring its interpretation of this symphonic masterpiece. To finish on a high note, the encore was the illustrious Venezuelan anthem Alma Llanera, which brought the audience members to their feet, joyfully clapping in rhythm!

Stage crew of the SBSOV with Russian counterparts in Moscow – Mosfilm rehearsal space. Copyright Anis Barnat

As a tour manager for the Bolívars, I have had the chance to follow them since 2014, and I could not wait to see old friends from the orchestra and discover what the 2019 Bolívars’ spirit and sound would be. As always in my experience, the results were impressive. I felt I was just as much a part of this musical family as I had been the last time I had heard them. They were the same in many ways—but there were differences as well.

An orchestra is an interesting social group: it is similar to a family, with charismatic components, but also with some members who are “followers” and others who are more independent from the group. For me, touring with orchestras is an ongoing lesson on human relationships between the members of the tour party. What has always amazed me about the Bolívars is the balance you can see and feel between its members, and the profound respect and humility everyone shows to everyone else. This is maybe why I have always admired El Sistema ensembles on tour. What matters is the musical result and the blend that the musicians find on stage. There is no star, there is no soloist; there are only equal parts in this orchestra. Of course, you have leaders in every section, but each one of them is working towards the general goal of the highest artistic excellence, under the artistic vision of the Maestro.

Anis Barnat (author) with Abner Padrino, SBOV cellist.

Having this blend is not such a difficulty when the orchestra is composed of musicians who all started together. It is more challenging when the orchestra is composed of several generations of talented musicians, which is the case for the 2019 Bolívars. The musicians from this orchestra are a mix of the last generation of the Bolívars, who have incredible international experience, and the new generation of teenagers who benefit from the more experienced musicians. The outcome is a new sound from the orchestra, with a less deep, automatic musical intimacy than before, bringing more surprises. I witnessed in the rehearsals how a first-generation musician was often mentoring a newest member, with benevolence and pedagogical skill. This is El Sistema: the newest learning from the best, who are making sure that everyone understands and follows the same musical lines and intentions. It does not mean that there is no exchange between musicians, and this was the great discovery of the Bolívars 2019: a new member has the same voice as an older one; what matters is the musical quality. The Venezuelan sound is always very characteristic: powerful and energetic!—but the new generation also brings a musical color that reveals a more varied sound.

In a Bolívar tour, the concerts are the most visible part of the proverbial iceberg (with wonderful concerts at Zaryadye Concert Hall in Moscow and at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg), but for me, the tour is also about the many surrounding events that are not always promoted. Music is a blessing for these musicians, and the fact of being from El Sistema means that they want and express the need to offer back, to the communities they visit, the gifts they have been lucky to receive during their training. The Russia residency, like all their tours, was an occasion to offer mini-concerts and outreach events in universities and community centers, and to provide musical welcomes to their audiences. Three musicians from the orchestra, who founded the Bolívar Brass Trio, performed a kind of musical prelude in the lobby before each concert. These were the best appetizers for the great concerts to follow, steering audiences toward joy before the performances of the orchestra. Connectedness with audiences and communities is key to El Sistema. In my opinion, this shows the generosity of the musicians and how much they perceive music as a tool for a more inclusive society.

The idea of solidarity is what I take home from this tour: the solidarity of real connections between the musicians genuinely oriented to the best music making, and of connections to audiences through the many off-stage educational activities. Maybe the best example of all lies in the way the Venezuelan stage crew connected with their Russian counterparts, always thanking them for their great work and mutually asking for photos to share after the loadouts from the venues. There is a warmth and professionalism during work that transfigures all the Venezuelans. A Bolívar tour is about respect, from the more obvious part on stage to the less visible part at the loading bays of the venues. Yes, the Bolívars are back!

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