Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Istanbul

On Monday, I have returned from a week in Ayvalık to miss the first Istanbul concert of Simon Bolivar Orchestra performing their Tchaikovsky-Shakespeare programming. But yesterday night, I caught them in the fantastically located Haliç Congress Center, performing two South American composers next to Ravel and Stravinsky.

The concert was a blast. It is lovely to see a young orchestra, with a very modest conductor (though his resume gives no reason for such modesty). For those who are not familiar with Venezuela’s El Sistema and the orchestra itself, here is a little blurb about it:

El Sistema is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education programme in Venezuela, originally called Social Action for Music. El Sistema, founded by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu, is a state foundation which watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. It has about 31 different orchestras under its wing, but its success relies on empowering hundred thousand children from disadvantaged backgrounds into finding a path within music, whether it is conducting, playing an instrument or making them. One of those success stories is Gustavo Dudamel, current musical director of Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the LA Philharmonic, with a list of accomplishments quite large for his young age.

Yet, with a great resume, Dudamel is not a spoiled child. He refuses to stand on the conductor’s stand when not conducting, as he is not above the orchestra but part of it. He is not a show man, but leaves that to two younger conductors who return for the encore, who have all the fun and steal the show but more entertaining pieces. Yet to listen to a lesser known Ravel suite, to two pieces a Venezuelan and Mexican composer that I would probably not hear in any other programming, and to listen to Stravinsky’s energetic Firebird Suite by the orchestra was a great experience.

As it is with any concert crowd in Istanbul, this one had its good and weird bits. The crowd was a lot more heterogeneous than the IKSV festivals, more relaxed, and it felt less like people were at the concert just to say they were there. Yet, looking at the literally screaming audience at the end of the show, I had to wonder who they were applauding so eagerly, the kids, the performance or Dudamel himself…

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