The exuberant Simon Bolivar youth orchestra lets rip


Performing at the BBC Proms 2007 (Thanks to John Hilley for highlighting this)

This is the product of El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education programme pioneered by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu in 1975. According to a UK Telegraph report, the programme offers every interested child, no matter how poor, an instrument and free tuition. Some 250,000 children are participating in the programme. El Sistema general manager Javier Moreno was quoted as saying: “We’re interested in creating citizens with all the values they need to exist in society – responsibility, teamwork, respect, cooperation and work ethic.”

If only we had a Malaysian equivalent – comprising the youths of all ethnic groups and classes (rich and poor) from Perlis to Sabah – playing a fusion of Malaysian music with similar exhuberance. Wouldn’t that be more culturally authentic – and more affordable – than the big-budget Petronas “Malaysian” Philharmonic Orchestra, which comprises highly paid expats performing before mainly well-heeled audiences?

This is how The Telegraph describes the BBC Proms of 2007:

It was a night that anyone who was there will never forget.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra prom
Fiesta time as the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra lets rip

Yes, the Proms are renowned for their party atmosphere, particularly on the Last Night, but that’s from the audience. At the concert by the astonishing Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, it was the performers who let rip in what must have been the most joyful Proms performance ever.

The high jinks started at the end of the scheduled concert when they produced from nowhere jackets in the national colours to replace their immaculate suits. To cheering and stamping from the audience, they performed three increasingly wild encores.

They waved their instruments in unison, they stood up and sat down in time to the music, they performed Mexican waves, they threw their instruments in the air, spun their double basses and danced with each other. It was fiesta time.

Then they invaded the auditorium, and, as the last encore came to a raucous close, you realised the conductor had been replaced by one of the revellers. Finally, when the audience refused to stop clapping, the youngsters threw their multi-hued jackets into the crowd.

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Classical musician
Classical musician
10 Dec 2008 7.09pm

Malaysia may not have a similar programme but did you know that there have been smaller attempts made in the past within certain states but the problem with young Malaysians is that they lack the discipline to master western orchestral instruments. These instruments take time to master and even with the best subsidies like those available in Perak, unless the youngster is self-motivated, there is a great tendency to give up all too soon. Most Malaysian parents also do not encourage their children to study classical musicianship, whether the studies and instruments are subsidised or not as they cannot perceive… Read more »

9 Dec 2008 3.18pm

dear Anil, little drops of water… yes, Malaysia doesn’t have any such programme as yet and yes, learning an instrument is shockingly expensive. But what the MPYO is doing is hopefully, laying the foundation for a more comprehensive approach to musical education in the future. If you look at the profile of the members of the orchestra, you will see that not all the members are from privileged backgrounds. In fact, many of them struggle to pay for their music education while others have to travel great distances just for a weekly music lesson. but they all do it out… Read more »

9 Dec 2008 12.57pm

I wrote my comment earlier as I had attended the MPO a couple of times when I was in KL.

I was not aware of any of our local youths being part of an orchestra performing at the MPO as per the leaflets given out, maybe because I attended the MPO right at the beginning. After moving to Penang, I have lost touch.

My apologies for my erroneous comments regarding the participation of Malaysians.

The tickets to the MPO are not cheap, although buying in packages helped somewhat. I think prices have gone up since I was last there (duh!)…

9 Dec 2008 11.13am

My son, who is a current member of the MPYO, is deeply offended that you were unaware of the existence of the youth orchestra yet deigned to pass judgement on Petronas and the MPO. The company and the orchestra are doing good work in trying to groom a generation of musicians. They have outreach programmes, student rates for tickets, and they have the youth orchestra. Please do attend one of the youth orchestra concerts. The orchestra is not as big as SBYO but they are equally enthusiastic and under the direction of their conductor and mentor, Kevin Field, they play… Read more »

lil ms d
lil ms d
8 Dec 2008 4.23pm

hello anil

i read your blog all the time and would like to thank you for posting this. it’s something to think about for the foundation i work for!

8 Dec 2008 3.50pm

they’re so funny! thanks, anil.

mut, petronas also created the malaysian philharmonic youth orchestra whose members are being groomed to take over the mpo. try to catch their annual performance. i hear they’re really good and cute. though their origin and story may not be as inspiring as the sbyo’s.

8 Dec 2008 12.17pm

Anything will fall to pieces if you have a plan but do not have the tight personnel. Plans to develop youth in whatever fields are everywhere. Fact is everything the government has tried failed because they put the wrong people in place. People without vision but they can sure spend money. Look at our sports associations? They are given tons of money but our sports is nowhere near the pinnacle. We hear of the Petronas Philharmonic Orchestra (ok, if they have to spend money to get it off the ground is one thing, but what about a long term plan… Read more »