Progetto "El Sistema" continues to bring the best Venezuelan youth orchestras to Milan. Performances have evidenced distinctive passion and formidable talent, whilst sharp programming has emphasised each orchestra's respective characteristics. Earlier this week, the Sinfónica Juvenil "Teresa Carreño" displayed their lush sound in a largely South American programme. Tonight, their cousins the Sinfónica Juvenil de Caracas tackled brooding Romantic works in a showcase of impressive power.

Dietrich Paredes © Nohely Oliveros
Dietrich Paredes
© Nohely Oliveros
Orchestra director Dietrich Paredes was once asked whether passion sufficed to become a musician irrespective of talent. More important than both qualities, he replied, is discipline. The musicians of the Sinfónica Juvenil de Caracas play with great artistry: they have passion and talent in reams. Accompanying self-discipline welds them into a compact, powerful unit. 

Paredes' conducting demands high concentration. He electrifies the platform with tightly sprung beats. Players watch like hawks. The tension in Verdi's Overture to La forza del destino built beautifully, with coiling cellos and basses full of potential energy. Paredes carved out luxuriant lines from noble brass to lustrous Verdian violins. When we reached the stormier middle section, he darted between orchestral sections with indefatigable vitality, extracting maximum detail from a given phrase.

Players are equally attentive to one another. A vivid performance of Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini (based on a passage from The Inferno) evoked Dante wandering the first circle of hell in woodwind flurries and sinuous groans from strings. There was incisive percussion and pungent brass to depict damned lovers Francesca and Paolo spiralling in a storm. Section leaders urged their forces forward. A lean pack of basses eyed one another during pizzicato runs. Intensity brewed, then lingered even in the Andante cantabile non troppo, propelling the rhapsodic accompaniment beneath a beautifully sculpted clarinet solo. 

The programme's biggest challenge looked set to come from Saint-Saëns' Symphony no. 3 in C minor. It is the last of the composer's symphonies, and functions almost as a compendium of his styles to date. Unconventional orchestration requires players to negotiate blend with piano and organ. The standard four movements are contracted into a two movement framework. Players are required to switch mood in an instant with no pause for breath. They rose to the challenge in a performance that gripped from start to finish.

A dynamic, ever-shifting surface featured familiar forward drive. The Allegro moderato balanced an airy one-in-a-bar feel with darker undertones from nervy, scampering violins. We reached lyrical bliss for the Poco adagio dialogue between violins and organ, whilst a tenacious Scherzo broke into excitable splashes from piano, triangle and cymbal. The Maestoso broadened regally with the entry of the organ. Such assertive playing created a palpable buzz. 

So much so that the audience demanded more. A violinist emerged from the stage to direct an encore of Márquez's Danzón no. 2. It was moving to see that El Sistema continues to provide young conductors with such opportunities. This had been preceded by an encore of Shostakovich's Festive Overture, building excitement for the orchestra's upcoming open-air concert where the piece will feature again. Most exciting of all was the final encore of popular Venezuelan song Alma Llanera. Audience members from El Sistema orchestras and choirs burst into spontaneous song, some joyfully draping Venezuelan flags from their boxes. Who said discipline had to be dour?