Ever seen an orchestral dance off? We have now. Aged 14 to 25, the musical whizz kids of the Sinfónica Juvenil "Teresa Carreño" love to move. They are the next instalment of La Scala's Progetto "El Sistema", which sees young musicians from the Venezuelan education program invade Milan over the coming two weeks. Whilst tonight's offering of sambas, waltzes and a witches' dance had varying levels of success, the orchestra's level of musicality was generally outstanding.

Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela © Teatro alla Scala
Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
© Teatro alla Scala

In a performance recorded the year before his death, Bernstein jived as he conducted the LSO in his Overture to Candide. Tonight's concert-opening rendition might have provoked a similar wiggle. A steady tempo found its propulsion in snapping snare and chippy xylophone, whilst strings searched out radiant lyricism in the expansive Dvořákian melody. A precise sound sees predominant violins sitting delicately atop shy winds and brass. Young director Christian Vásquez marshals with tick-tock beats in what by now feels like a house style – a suspected heirloom from Sistema founder and conducting teacher José Antonio Abreu.

Such high-precision made the intricate rhythms of Chavez's "Indian Symphony" burst with spontaneity. The work evokes rugged landscapes in reedy winds and a range of percussion made from deer hooves, butterfly cocoons and clay rattles, the composer drawing on musical styles (if not the tunes in their entirety) of three indigenous Mexican populations. Particular concentration came from pattering percussionists; one timpanist eyeballed his colleagues in the resolute second movement, ear down low, as he stroked the surface of the skin. Technically, the work is divided into three movements, whilst in practice it shifts fluidly in a larger number of sketches ("variation can be replaced by the notion of constant rebirth", was the composer's philosophy). The orchestra realised textural metamorphoses with cool control.

From the clinical to the colourful in Margariteña, an aural sketch of the island of Margarita by Venezuelan composer Inocente Carreño (no link with the orchestra, whose namesake is Venezuelan pianist and singer Teresa Carreño, a favourite of Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts). "You can feel the air and smell the water", says El Sistema disciple Gustavo Dudamel of the piece. You can see what he means. The introduction alone rotated from ultramarine tremolo strings and horns in dawning shards to weaving woodwind shoals and flashes in metallic waves. The 165 musicians of the orchestra swayed as one for the principal song "Margarita is a tear that a cherub dropped," rippling and digesting lilting rhythms with bodies as well as ears.

In travel through space and time, we fled the first half shores of 20th century Americas to a second half mooring in turbulent 1830s France. Retaining their well-sanded panache for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, the orchestra never entirely adapted to the new idiom. The elegance of the opening portions came off well, with the often mercurial "Rêveries – Passions" here frothing steadily, ears provided surprising fare with a soupy-slow (and effective) first exposition of the idée fixe. A slower tempo than the one Berlioz marked for the second movement provided a luxurious, honeyed Waltz where the pirouettes hung in mid air between downy silences in cushioning rests.

But as the story hurtles towards a morbid debauch in a haze of opiates, more drama was required. Cool breezes and dragging tempi robbed the third movement's pastoral solitude of slow-burning tension, though fine sculpting in quadruple timpani at least made for a multi-dimensional storm. The fourth movement's March to the Scaffold was no place for lyrical fragments in violins, but for gritty sneers in dancing bassoon. Too polite in general, but a thrilling surge late on, with the effect of beaming our victim ever larger as he walked towards an artfully positioned camera beneath the guillotine. Winds were timid in the final Witches' Sabbath, tubular bells' peals of death drooped apologetically and violins lacked spice in their col legno – too mellow for a dance of demons.

Little did we know, the party hadn't even started. "Va, pensiero", one of five encores, was too sluggish to gush, but assorted mambos and sambas fired on all cylinders, met with dynamism onstage (both choreographed and extemporary) and participation from an incognito chorus of El Sistema musicians in the audience. A few artistic decisions may have been off the mark, but this young orchestra has a taste for the lush, mixing sensitivity with passion and top technique to boot. An empowering combination.