The Coro de Manos Blancas (White Hands Choir) of Venezuela, one of the leading group of the Special Education Programme, was founded by Johnny Gómez in 1995 to include children and young adults with disabilities. The White Hands Choir is part of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs, known as “El Sistema”. Founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, “El Sistema” is the multifaceted guest of this Salzburg Festival edition, which includes the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, the Groẞes Superar Chöre and other ensembles. On Twitter, you can follow their steps with the #elsistemaensalzburgo hashtag.

© Silvia Lelli
© Silvia Lelli

Creating a choir choreographed with white-gloved dancing hands, in 1999 Naybeth García extended Abreu and Gómez’s music-based education programme to deaf-mute people. Their ideal of inclusion means putting handicaps aside and – as Gómez wrote – identifying what people can do, and developing that. Isn’t this a wonderful, bold idea?

To achieve this, Gómez and García divided the performers into two groups: one, devoted to physical expression and led by García, consists of children and young adults with hearing impairments wearing white gloves; while the singing section, in Salzburg led by Luis Chinchilla, is formed of young adults with visual, cognitive and motor impairments. Over the years, the White Hands Choir has become as renowned as El Sistema generally, thanks to appearances on television in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain. If you do not know about them yet, I recommend the documentaries El Sistema (directed by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier in 2008) and, in Italian, L’altra voce della musica (Helmut Failoni and Francesco Merini, 2006, about Claudio Abbado’s experiences within El Sistema) and A Slum Symphony (Cristiano Barbarossa, 2010).

Some time ago, searching online, I discovered a Manos Blancas rehearsal video. Notwithstanding the poor sound quality, it was clear that John Rutter’s Ave Maria was the backbone of their repertoire. I told myself: you have to see that live. The magic repeated itself yesterday afternoon. In the great hall of the Mozarteum, the White Hands Choir of Venezuela offered two slightly different concert programs on 8 and 9 August. I attended the second one. Both concerts started with Rutter’s Ave Maria for mixed choir, accompanied by a visually impaired player at the keyboard. The White Hands’ movements are not a literal translation of the music, but choreography. The wonder can not be properly conveyed: you just have to see and listen. The idea is simple, indeed, but the result: a miracle of grace.

Gustavo Flores’ O magnum mysterium and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus followed. The two choirs, almost 100-strong, performed side by side, united in something that helps the audience to forget differences. They are a whole, perfectly synchronized: candid movements of the White Hands, tuned sounds of the voices.

In the second section, the White Hands took a rest. A male vocal quintet intoned Hans Leo Hassler’s Cantate Domino. The audience was going to warm up. This was the “classic” part of the concert. Easily switching from one repertoire to another, the same quintet sang Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Bossanova with instrumental (maracas, drums, guitar and mandolin) and vocal accompaniment. Usually, the Salzburg Festival audience is very attentive, musically cultivated, discreet, and very quiet, whatever the concert they are attending. But yesterday, a true escalation took place, from the successful interpretation of the Hasse to the delirium that welcomed the world-famous song Guantanamera by José Fernández Díaz.

In the first part of the concert, the White Hands focused on melodic pieces; hence, they did their best in rendering the rhythms of Ástor Piazzolla’s La muerte del ángel, Oscar Galián’s Salseo, Richard Egües’ cha cha cha El Bodeguero, ending with by Edgar Mejías’ Tamunangueando the last two sang with a rich instrumental accompaniment. Gában, a folkloric Venezuelan song arranged by Conrado Monier, could be consider as an El Sistema soundtrack, often performed by the immense orchestra conducted by Dudamel. If a Venezuelan spirit does exist, yesterday it was surely among us. The White Hands Choir triumph ended with three encores and four standing ovations.