The penultimate concert of Progetto "El Sistema" had the feel of a grand finale. Programmatic diversity showcased the Simón Bolívar Orchestra's versatility. Each piece seemed intended to symbolise something of El Sistema at large. Estévez's Cantata Criolla closed the concert in a large-forces “darkness to light” trajectory with all the celebratory qualities of a Venezuelan Beethoven's Ninth.

The Ninth forms the actual grand finale in tomorrow's performance. That concert is delivered once again by the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, who are close to completing a gruelling Milan schedule. Tonight was the second in their three-concert series, launched whilst the orchestra was still engaged in the pit for an eight-show run of Zeffirelli's La bohème. Various other members of the El Sistema family have delivered multiple engagements, most of which have taken place at La Scala. The house has been abuzz with an invigorated appreciation of music's educative potential.

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela © Nohely Oliveros
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
© Nohely Oliveros

The second half opener of Villa-Lobos’s Chôros no. 10 was especially invigorating after a lighter first half. Textures teem in bawling horns and ripe piccolo birdsong. "This is my conservatory," Villa-Lobos once said, pointing to a map of Brazil: the rainforest is just one inspiration in music that tries to capture the essence of an entire nation. The piece was composed in 1926, but when revelling humans arrive in the second part, the rhythms seemed to anticipate 1980s West Coast hip hop, so animated were the kicking percussion and off-beat hollers from orchestra and choir. Bright tenors and basses patter text from the Brazilian poem Rasga o coração – "tear my heart, and we shall sob at the pain inside" – building to a striking colour change when women's voices adopt a sweeping melody over brass chords and voiced plucks. We were reminded of that integral El Sistema component – dance – when the stage flickered to symbiotic life, with music played between bodies as well as on instruments.

Just as much an integral El Sistema component is "Venezuela". Sistema musicians supporting compatriots from the audience have draped Venezuelan flags from their boxes, in just one expression of national pride. Estévez's Cantata Criolla is written by a composer that did for Venezuela what Copland did for North America and, closing the concert tonight, it couldn’t help but feel like a patriotic statement. The setting is a Venezuelan myth where Florentino the plainsman beats the Devil in a singing contest. Soloists Gaspar Colón and Idwer Alvarez provided a semi-staged feel, with Colón painting the Devil in sparkling text, in spite of an under-projected baritone, and Alvarez impressing with a bright, rustic tenor. The orchestra shifts the spotlight in the soloists’ sparring exchange. Florentino is set to shimmying washes predominated by capachos llaneros (maracas), versus a trickling ostinato that weaves in and out of the Devil's text. Dudamel was on superhero form during tricky passages, doggedly indicating each of Colón's entries, simultaneously mouthing the choir's words and evidently cool enough to sway when the music found its groove.

A criticism of El Sistema orchestras has been that they have only one setting: "beefy". The first half provided evidence to the contrary. Beethoven's Symphony no.1 in C major is a Classical work cast in the mould of Beethoven’s teacher Joseph Haydn with nods in Mozart's direction. The Bolívars opted for a typically Classical reading, with their reduced-fat forces fine-tuned to a chamber ensemble. The results sounded manicured, feather-light. Tempi were slower than those indicated by Beethoven, though this did nothing to douse the brio in the first movement's Allegro con brio. Sharp dynamic contrasts kept us afloat, as did the Beethovenian sforzandi that jumped off the page. Players were in good humour. When the second section turns murky, the way the basses stumbled out of major into minor before wriggling back up with a grin delighted with each rendition.

The second movement had violinists tying gauzy knots around the timpanist's tiptoeing on eggshells. Balance was generally first-rate, save for the slight predominance of first violins, whose sound was stoked by a lead violinist moonlighting as a surrogate conductor. Dudamel tended to keep out of the way – his players were capable of sustaining the musical chatter on their own – though one directorial quirk saw momentum dissolve when he slowed the third movement's already slow scamper to a wallow for its stately chords. It was a blazing finale regardless, with players spurred on by Dudamel’s flying stock gestures.