Report from ISME 2016

Glasgow Cathedral Banner
Glasgow Cathedral on a rare sunny day.

Last time I was at ISME (Porto Alegre, July 2014) I penned a tongue-in-cheek reduction of my impressions of the event under a title that would have made Sergio Leone call his lawyer, were Sergio still alive. I’m not able to do the same this year – write the review, that is, not posthumously antagonize the late, great director of spaghetti westerns through copyright violations. Having brought a quartet of students from UNC Charlotte to perform at the event, I found myself missing a large number of sessions in order to coordinate their rehearsals and manage related logistics. Finding rehearsal space with a piano in a city hosting the largest music education conference in the world would have been impossible had not Oliver Searle at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland come to the rescue (more on him later).

There were a few events I found memorable, and for many different reasons. In no particular order:

The Palestine Youth Orchestra

From the moment the musicians walked on stage wearing the keffiyeh, the performance was politically and socially charged. The master of ceremonies apologized that two of the musicians, both age 15, were absent, denied exit visas from Palestine by the “Israeli Occupation Authority.” The first work, Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, was introduced as symbolic of the quest for freedom after unjust imprisonment. Of the Palestinian vocal works that followed, the first was on a theme of grief and loss. The backstory was no less remarkable: cellos and basses cobbled together from loans from British stores and local benefactors, an orchestra comprised of Palestinians drawn from around the world, assembled and rehearsed on a shoe-string budget. Shout out to Tim Pottier (Opera North) and Wissam Boustany for their leadership in pulling off this massive undertaking.

This is a hot button issue, so if you’re looking for either approbation or condemnation on political lines you’re in the wrong place. I have my own opinions on the Israeli-Palestine question and those opinions will remain mine. I respect this project for what it represents, and I doubly respect the effort to advocate through music.

Special mention to conductor Sian Edwards, who was extraordinarily gracious and generous with her time in meeting my students following the concert.

The Scottish National Youth Orchestra

This was the middle group of three Scottish youth orchestras, as determined by age, and they played splendidly. Their Tchaikovsky Swan Lake was a little timid, the contemporary work by Oliver Searle (in his primary role as a gifted composer, rather than a rehearsal space coordinator) certainly impressive, and the Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story had all the swagger that we’d expect of a Venezuelan orchestra. Props to the cornet player in the Tchaikovsky who nailed the solo with 100% accuracy and superb style – the one woman in a section overflowing with testosterone.

How much of our adulation of the Venezuelan orchestras is related to their tricolor jackets and choreography?

Big Noise Raploch

I’d just worked with this group the week before so of course I was front and center (well, 4th row and center) in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for their lunchtime performance. I was disappointed not in them, because they put on a good show, but in the level of interest of the other delegates. Big Noise deserved a far larger audience than they had for their concert.

UNC Charlotte’s Improbable Ensemble aka (x7)^2

Talking to the Audience
The quartet converses with the very engaged audience.

I can recognize this performance precisely because I wasn’t onstage, I wasn’t conducting, I was just observing, and the musicians accomplished something on their own that some in the audience described as “shocking”. It was an unprecedented act of the utmost social integration and aural virtuosity by four young adults from a modest music school. I never had to compel them to rehearse: they took on this task with a relentless pursuit of excellence that would put professionals to shame. Then they fielded questions from the audience and responded in a poised, articulate and knowledgeable manner. I am very, very proud of them.

The Poster Session

A rare example of true irony: the poster on “How to prepare a poster” in which the author failed to double-check the conference dimension specifications and had to drape his excessively wide sheet across the display board like a pleated theatre curtain. To call it amateurish would be an insult to amateurs.


The hope and expectation in coming to a conference of this nature is to see progress in discourse, but I couldn’t help feel, from the sessions I attended (important disclaimer) that the discourse had moved sideways, if it had moved at all. Geoff Baker co-presented a paper with the highly distinguished scholar Ana Lucia Frega comparing reports and evaluations of Sistema over a decade. The findings were interesting but largely unsurprising. Sistema in Venezuela has also moved sideways pedagogically and organizationally, if it has moved at all.

One positive note: unless the long-awaited, oft-forgotten and likely-suppressed second IADB report makes an appearance and drops some new bombshells, the analysis of Venezuela feels largely complete. After the release of Larry Scripp’s interview with a Sistema alumnus that largely corroborated Baker’s findings, there was remarkably little hue and cry of the kind that followed the publication of Baker’s book. The chief line of attack on the latter was Baker’s unwillingness to name names. It apparently only took one name for the evangelists to retreat, or more likely, ignore the issues entirely. See no evil, hear no evil, as they say.

If I were to identify a cause of this sector stagnation, I would say that it comes from lack of any advancement in pedagogy. Once we’ve finished with Venezuela, what else is there to discuss? On Friday afternoon, when participating in a panel with Richard Hallam, he asked me as the Sistema representative to speculate as to why that particular sector resisted convergence with other streams like Community Music or Popular Music. I responded with something to the effect that Sistema identify is rooted in its claims to a “unique, subversive, radical, disruptive” nature despite its extremely traditional modes and means, so were its willful ignorance of the current best practices of music education dispelled, this self-narrative would be forever shattered. Ignorance might truly be bliss in this instance.

I was being polemic, but I’m led to believe by my experiences in multiple Sistema programs that we still think we can achieve something very different by doing things just the very same. As I write this I see that Geoff Baker has just posted his impressions on the conference, and with no collusion having taken place (I deeply regret I didn’t even have a chance to have a private conversation with him in Glasgow, as a result of my other duties) I see he made many of the same observations. I would reiterate the call for honesty. Yes, there are ethical considerations, but there’s a more practical reason: the survival of the movement depends on it.

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