Can a concert have ever been so eagerly anticipated?

In 2006 Richard Holloway, then chair of the Scottish Arts Council, went on a fact-finding visit to Venezuela to look at El Sistema, where intensive classical music tuition in schools and the formation of orchestras has developed a successful track record of transforming attitudes in desperately poor and violent communities. The El Sistema model now helps thousands of children round the world. Returning to Edinburgh, convinced that Scotland must be involved, he was the key to setting up the Sistema Scotland charity in the Raploch housing estate in Stirling. Raploch was chosen not only because it was an area which would benefit, but also because it has a clear identity, an enthusiastic community and new facilities in a Community Campus allowing access for all the children.

Gustavo Dudamel with Sistema, Scotland © Marc Marnie
Gustavo Dudamel with Sistema, Scotland
© Marc Marnie

From 2008, work started with young primary school children who were slowly introduced to selected instruments. The total immersion in music tuition cannot be overstated: ensemble and individual lessons after school three times a week, and importantly tuition continues during the school holidays. There is a team of teachers, mentors and volunteers, with well-known players like Nicola Benedetti regularly turning up to help out. An orchestra called Big Noise Raploch has been formed and has already given several performances.

Although Sistema Scotland is a social rather than a musical project, it uses music to achieve its ends, as through playing instruments in an ensemble, the children learn the skills of mastering something difficult and cooperating with each other, and they gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. In 2006, just one child in the Raploch estate was learning an instrument – there are 450 pupils now. In addition, to illustrate just how far the community has taken this project to its heart, an orchestra of adults in Raploch called The Noise has also started.

Imagine the local excitement when it was announced that El Sistema’s flagship, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, would be coming all the way from Venezuela to Raploch estate with their conductor and Big Noise’s patron Gustavo Dudamel for The Big Concert to launch the London 2012 Festival. Not only would Big Noise Raploch get a chance to perform on an international platform, but some would get to play right alongside their heroes. The preparations and rehearsals have been busy, and have already attracted much media coverage. Indeed, the concert went out live on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Four.

And so to midsummer: the big day has arrived and 8,000 of us are braving the continual sheets of rain in a soggy field next to Raploch estate overlooked by the magnificent Stirling Castle towering above us, itself almost touching the low clouds. A massive Glastonbury-type stage has been constructed, big screens erected, London 2012 waterproof ponchos distributed and the sky-high camera man behind us is ready.

The Big Noise Raploch children in sky blue sweatshirts, the very first performers in the whole of the London 2012 Festival filled the stage. There were lots of them and they really did look tiny – the youngest just six years old. All sections and instruments were represented, including double basses and tubas. Gustavo Dudamel took up the baton, and the full orchestra gave Rondeau from Abdelazer by Purcell its best shot ever.

Then the 200 strong Simón Bolívar orchestra arrived, dressed warmly in black hoodies each wearing a medallion on a ribbon in the red, blue and yellow Venezuelan flag colours. A few lucky Raploch players were interspersed in the orchestra, including two horn players, trumpet, oboe, timpani and double bass. But just before Beethoven’s Egmont Overture began, in a touching gesture, each Raploch child was given a Venezuelan ribbon and medal by their desk partners. Egmont sounded wonderful and Dudamel seemed delighted to be conducting the youngsters, whom he singled out to take their bows at the end.

To end the first half, the Simón Bolívar orchestra took us on a tour of the orchestra with Britten’s Young Person’s Guide where the big Purcell Abdelazer theme thundered out before each section played their variations. The piece ended in a blisteringly fast fugue, beginning on the piccolo and taking us back through the instruments in the order they were introduced to us before Purcell’s theme was restated.

The second half was a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 3, “Eroica” and this was a big sound: I counted 4 bassoons, 4 clarinets and 9 double basses. The performance was certainly first class, but outdoors it was difficult to pick out the detail. The orchestra was quite a long way from those of us in the tiered seating who had to rely almost completely on the big screens and the sound relay. The image and picture almost but not quite matched, and both were delayed from what was happening on stage. Although the rain eased for Eroica, it was kept off by a breeze which made the many ponchos rustle like giant freezer bags. So detail like the lovely descending double bass notes at the start of the funeral march was pretty much lost. In general though, although it was an exciting interpretation, I did wonder about the choice of this work for this occasion. Perhaps on a magical summer evening it might have been different.

The encores the Simón Bolívar orchestra perform are now legendary, but to hear them played live was thrilling. On came the red, blue and yellow Venezuelan jackets – Dudamel zipping his up quick against the breeze and Malambo from Estancia by Alberto Ginestera was followed by Bernstein’s Mambo from West Side Story, complete with the orchestra up shouting, twirling their instruments and swaying on their seats in unison. A moving Auld Lang Syne was followed by combined fireworks from Raploch field and up at the Stirling Castle. The crowd at the front had a chance to catch a famous jacket as they were thrown from the stage by the orchestra, leaving after the three-hour event. It was a performance many of us probably never expected to see live, never mind on our own doorstep.

So what happens next with Sistema Scotland? There is already talk of a visit by the young Raploch musicians to Caracas in 2013, and also of five new Big Noise orchestras in Scotland starting up over the next five years. That’s in the future, but for me one of the highlights of the evening was the value conferred by the awarding of the Simón Bolívar ribbons and medals to the Scottish players, who became members of a world-class orchestra for a day. That’s exactly what El Sistema is about.

****1