Time to change – a Venezuelan vignette

It was the afternoon of my first full day in Venezuela back in 2010. The morning had been spent in the company of the Ambassador at the US Embassy, back when the US had full diplomatic representation in the country. We had asked him how relations were between the two nations, at which he replied, chuckling “They’ve never been worse!”, an odd statement given that he had been expelled by Chavez not two years earlier. It was a cordial conversation: we were welcomed to the country, warned that we had entered the most dangerous city in the Wes tern Hemisphere, and then only a little paradoxically wished well in our enterprise.


If the morning were devoted to geopolitics, the afternoon heralded the start of the musical voyage. We were to hear THE Símon Bolívar Orchestra in rehearsal, in the Centro de Acción Social por la Musica under the direction of – wait for it – THE eminent (and now much missed) Claudio Abbado. Rehearsal was to begin at 3pm, and we took our places in eager anticipation just a few minutes late.
And so we sat in the house José Antonio Abreu built, in a loge on the left facing the stage, awaiting the arrival of the maestro. We had missed nothing. The stage more closely resembled an oriental bazaar in its cacophony of sound and swirl of uncoordinated yet energetic activity as musicians circled about, warmed up, socialized or played games on their mobiles. And so it remained until close to 4:15pm, when Abbado finally entered and the orchestra slowly settled into its seats.

At some point in the hour between the official start time and the entrance of the maestro, I had expressed my surprise that the orchestra was not ready and waiting for a guest of such eminence. The head of the Fellows program overhead me and sneered: “Why don’t you go down there and show them how it’s done?” (There was a lot of sneering from that direction during the Fellowship.) The usual excuses of culture/Caracas traffic/ South American concepts of time were trotted out, and, with no data for rebuttal, I accepted the explanation.

It wasn’t my time to “show them how it’s done” then – but it was four years later when I found myself on the same stage rehearsing the now-defunct Teresa Carreño. I had been informed upon arrival that although the 3-7pm rehearsal timing represented the official schedule, both breaks and the time of dismissal were at my discretion. Poppycock. My discretion as such acknowledged the realities of being an orchestral musician, which mandated breaks and a firm end time to rehearsal. I had arrived early, and at the stroke of the hour that first Monday directed the concertmaster to commence the tuning process. The orchestra was barely half assembled, but within 15 minutes every seat in the orchestra had been filled. (Apparently, some musicians had circulated the news of the unusually timely start by surreptitious text.) We rehearsed until 5:00pm, at which point we took a 20-minute break. At 5:20 we recommenced, and the rehearsal concluded on the stroke of 7pm.

On Tuesday the entire orchestra was present at ready to rehearse at 3pm. And so it continued for the rest of the week. There was the occasional late arrival, since Caracas traffic is truly abysmal, but otherwise the issue of punctuality had been resolved without so much as a word spoken.

For the Fellows, ascribing problems with punctuality to South American attitudes was a monumental act of hypocrisy and stereotyping. Long before we arrived in Venezuela, the Fellows had already succumbed to a very flexible concept of time, with some members regularly arriving very late for seminars or meetings without excuse. The situation reached a head in Venezuela, when departure times from the hotel were delayed by hours as Fellows sauntered down from their rooms at their leisure without consequence. When I expressed my frustration to the NEC employee tasked with program supervision in Venezuela, asking why no remonstrance or such simple consequence as leaving without the tardy had been enacted (as a foolproof way of ensuring promptness in future) my objections produced a bawling breakdown in the lobby of the núcleo at Mérida, and a referral to the Dean of Students at NEC for disciplinary action for “undermining authority.” (The interview with the Dean of Students lasted less than five minutes and concluded with his realization that the referral was grossly inappropriate and unjustified.) Yes, this happened.

Like curses and chickens, this disrespect for the time of others came home to roost – on the final day of the Fellowship, no less, when we had a formal debriefing with the former President of NEC, Tony Woodcock. When the last of the class wandered into the meeting room yet again thirty minutes after the scheduled start time, Tony rightly fixed the group with a cold glare and asked: “Is it your practice to begin all meetings thirty minutes late?” No one spoke, for the only possible truthful response was “Yes.” By then a culture of tardiness without consequence had been firmly established, and this first real remonstrance was unfortunately also the last.

The musicians of the Símon Bolívar Orchestra at the rehearsal with Abbado were not guilty of any unprofessionalism or disrespect. They were simply attempting to balance their lives with their commitment to the ensemble. Abbado was probably just going with the flow. If rehearsals extended late into the night, as my prior experience had shown me was common for ensembles across the country, then musicians had every reason to arrive late, knowing their evening was entirely forfeit. If rehearsal started and ended exactly when scheduled, then they had every motivation to be punctual.

The most common abuse of the many perpetrated by the divo/a teaching artist/conductor is the belief that their time is more valuable than that of their students or ensemble musicians. And make no mistake, it is an abuse, a product of arrogance and disrespect, both of which are entirely inconsistent with any socio-musical program. In starting rehearsal on time with the Carreño, I communicated to the musicians that I expected them to respect my scheduled time with them. And by ending on time, I in turn demonstrated that I respected them and their time as well. A little mutual professional respect went a long way that week, and set the foundation for the introduction of a social approach to ensemble direction, the result of which impressed Dudamel enough to commend the quality of the sound the ensemble achieved in the Mozart Symphony. (Apparently he was intrigued by my rehearsals and sat in when his schedule allowed.)

Contrary to all conventional wisdom, it is absolutely possible for a Venezuelan orchestra to start rehearsal on time, and to play beautiful Mozart. I’d say it’s amazing what people are capable of if you treat them well, but really, it isn’t.

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