In October of last year I was having a beer with Steve Payne, Executive Director of Youth Orchestra San Antonio, when he made a very interesting point. “In Venezuela,” he said, “gatherings are always around the children, first and foremost. Teachers getting to talk shop is just a fringe benefit.” And he was right, of course. The Venezuelans don’t do “conferences,” they do seminarios, their word for “high intensity short-term music camps.” Making music is a central part of the experience. It’s not about the teachers, it’s about the kids and the music.
And Ottawa was really about the kids and the music, from start to finish. On Thursday, when Carleton University conferred a Doctor Honoris Causa on Maestro Abreu, the ceremony included performances from a contingent of children from the Leading Note Foundation. On Friday, the members of the visiting Simón Bolívar String Quartet spent close to two hours coaching chamber music ensembles at the University of Ottawa, then following a short break, two hours at the dress rehearsal with the children of Orkidstra in preparation for the big performance.
Saturday morning and early afternoon was devoted to the symposium. I forbear to comment on the relative merits or success of my contribution, but I started the morning with an exploration of the reason Sistema pedagogically is so in tune with our brains, and why social transformation can only be effected through music, rather than other arts or sport…or knitting. Noemi Weis followed with a screening of her film Teaching the Life of Music, a documentary on Sistema that should be on the media shelf of every organization of similar mission in North America. Although it focuses largely on Canadian programs, and notwithstanding the excellent narrative structure and content, the film is less than an hour and thus is extremely suitable for advocacy events, or public screenings and discussion sessions.
OrKidstra co-founders Tina Fedeski and Margaret Tobolowska finished the morning with a presentation of their extremely fine work in Ottawa, and recruited the audience into executing the “Leading Notes,” ten rhythmic reminders of the children’s social and musical responsibilities. After the break, Richard Hallam outlined the combination of political will, relentless effort, circumstance – and at times, plain dumb luck – that helped propel music education to the fore in Britain. This was followed by one of the most functional and pragmatic panels I’ve heard, moderated by Mr. Hallam, in which representatives from the school boards and the local Member of the Legislative Assemble of Ontario Yasir Naqvi candidly discussed the situation concerning music education within the public school system. Mr. Naqvi stuck to the party line concerning the prioritization of literacy and numeracy, but did not respond to my question as to why of the two symbol systems universally adopted (neither of which is the Roman alphabet) only one was apparently important.
And then, of course, there was the performance, in which the Simón Bolívar String Quartet joined forces with the children of Orkidstra in a magnificent celebration of youth and music. The concert was extraordinary not just for the mixed program, which included baroque, romantic, folk, Canadian indigenous and Canadian contemporary music, but for the extraordinary standard of playing and the commitment of all the musicians, inspired by the incredible physicality of the Venezuelans.
There would be another performance of the SBSQ alone the following day, presented by the Ottawa Chamber Music Society, but I would be on a flight back to Boston. I console myself by saying that I saw the more important event.