Approximately 4 hours west of London by vehicle is a region called Devon, in which lies the town of Exeter. The countryside is beautiful, quintessentially if not stereotypically British, with rolling fields partitioned by tall hedgerows, and cows and sheep dotting the hillside. Just east of Exeter there’s an agricultural fairground with a large indoor arena better suited and certainly more accustomed to stock shows, and in this simultaneously large but humble venue I made my UK conducting debut, in front of an orchestra of 8 year olds.
Unsurprisingly, I loved it, and the kids were great. But frankly, the why of this is much more important than the how. I’ve spent the last ten days working with In Harmony Lambeth, and it’s really very hard to think of another organization that just gets it the way they do. Program head Brendon LePage is one of the few people I’ve met who has a real understanding of how el Sistema functions, and with senior instructor Gill Walshaw he’s built one of the most comprehensive in-school /after-school programs I’ve seen. The whole operation is guided in largest part by a set of principles that closely resemble the five major criteria I previously laid out, the benchmarks against which an el Sistema inspired program could be measured. I’m not only gratified that someone arrived independently at the same conclusions I did , but the experience of seeing successful adaptation of these concepts has been tremendously encouraging as well.
The 10-minute performance in Devon, which must have taken hundreds of hours of staff time in planning and execution, was just a small part of a program of substantial vision and scope. The musicians will congregate again on Monday on stage at the Royal Festival Hall to perform with the London Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the LPO’s Brightsparks program. (If you happen to be in London, come look for me onstage playing violin…) It’s a big jump from the cowshed to one of Britain’s major stages, but In Harmony is doing it in the space of five days. It’s really quite…Venezuelan, in fact, and that is meant as the most sincere of compliments.
As for the cowards (not cow-herds), a few days ago I received a fairly abusive comment from someone in Calgary, Alberta (yes, WordPress automatically sends me IP information) that was unsigned, from a made-up email, and the work of an apparent illiterate. I’m going to follow standard journalistic practice and decline to approve/publish anonymous comments. So to my Calgarian colleague, if you want to say something, be man or woman enough to stand up behind your remarks or don’t make them at all.