One of the most unusual stages in the history of Venezuela’s National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras [El Sistema] was the creation, ex nihilo and almost from the beginning, of orchestral nuclei in the most remote areas of the country. Unusual perhaps because of the difficulty of executing an idea that was vulnerable in the era’s commonly accepted music education theories; certainly unusual for the culture shock, whose benefits would reveal themselves after decades of evolution. Seeing the positive balance, today we celebrate the clear application of the principle of equal opportunity throughout the country, but we know little of the local founders, men and women who developed transformative approaches.
In less than a decade, one of them, Henry Zambrano, was able to form a great musical movement in the llanos – the great western plains of Venezuela. Year 1980. Mission: to awaken a nucleus in Apure, where the reverberation of light seems to dissolve doctorates and melt imported recipes. There, as in any town, are unoccupied youth who deserve to know something different. Zambrano, a frank and direct double bass player from Lara with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, took on the project. From the door of a house in San Fernando, he recruits children, distributing instruments. After a week, he already has seventy, and begins to show them Mozart. How does that sound? Imagine it. Visualize the first step, the first path of such a proposal already in action. Imagine the spirit of a man who takes on the instant and urgent musical education of a heterogeneous group in an unknown subject, who succeeds in giving meaning – from the point of view of those children – to a challenging activity as harsh as the sound of a novice violinist.
From infinite difficulty, the general outline of a new procedure is born, but it is Zambrano’s discourse, his frank, down-to-earth language, that breaks the habit of passiveness and turns the indolence of minimal exposure into the healthily challenging shock of novelty, of formative perplexity. Three years later, after thousands of hours by bus through Barinas, Guanare, and San Fernando, he founds the Symphony Orchestra of the Llanos with the logistical support of the youth orchestra organization in Caracas.
At first, people didn’t know how to take this vehement, disheveled person who conducted rehearsals barefoot, shirt open, in the great room of the old University of Guanare. But with time they called him the Centaur – then nobody questioned how marvelous it was to have bi-monthly concerts with children all neatly arranged in a symphonic orchestra whose sonorous filigree perfectly represented the very idea of beauty: something that is obtained through communal strength, something that does not depend on wealth or social status but on dedication and talent, and that all can enjoy in public spaces. Dignity. More than twelve years ago now, I enjoyed a moving version of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and I had the honor of playing the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the Orchestra in Barinas and Guanare. Today, the talent is confirmed – many of the Orchestra’s former members are professionals in all the orchestras of the country; some are distinguished soloists who tour the world with conductor Gustavo Dudamel. But in the llanos remains a gigantic community irrigated and enriched by a profound cultural experience: the adventure of building an orchestra. It’s easier said than done, but Henry Zambrano knows how to do it. I am a witness.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland