July 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Beyond the notes

By Chloe Hooper
Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar String Quartet meet some of Melbourne’s youngest musicians

In a studio at the Arts Centre Melbourne, a group of music students sit with their string instruments, introducing themselves with jagged, raw-sounding bow strokes. By assigning letters to particular notes these children, aged 8 to 16, “play” their names before their teacher asks them to reveal the literal translations: JARRAD … ALEX … SENARA … Meanwhile, four men little used to such atonality sit at the front of the room, politely making the children’s acquaintance.

The members of the Simón Bolívar String Quartet grew up involved in El Sistema (The System), Venezuela’s now legendary public music program that situates music schools in the country’s most impoverished neighbourhoods. Over this program’s 40-year history, hundreds of thousands of children have been provided with free instruments and lessons. (“If you don’t get an instrument in Venezuela,” Alejandro Carreño, the Quartet’s first violinist, had earlier explained on ABC Radio National’s The Music Show, “probably you will do many things, but some of them could be alcohol, drugs, or a gun, so really the instrument saves lives.”) El Sistema has been emulated around the world, and is the inspiration for The Pizzicato Effect, a music program run by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for children living in the outer north-western City of Hume.

Zoë Barry, the program’s lead teaching artist, stands listening to the children, moved by the way their personalities come out in the musical cryptograms. Each of the Pizzi kids, as they’re colloquially known, plays with great concentration, and it is a sign of how far this group of different nationalities and cultures has come. “Last year we’d see kids taking their cello cases and putting them over their heads, pretending to be in a war and shooting,” Barry explained later. “That’s just not happening anymore. They own it.”

The night before, her students were given tickets to hear the Quartet perform at the Melbourne Recital Centre. For many it was their first concert, and in order to familiarise themselves with the Quartet’s repertoire they’d been listening to Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor. Throughout this work the Russian composer had embedded his musical monogram: DSCH.

The children loved the idea of music conveying secret messages, so they enthusiastically encoded their own names. (“We try to get across to them that the music is about telling stories. We’re trying to get to the next level beyond the notes.”) Barry knew, however, that for some of the children it was “a really big deal to even say their name, especially if their name isn’t English”. One of the cello students hesitates before playing his full and long Turkish name a second time.

After the children finish the exercise, Barry invites the Quartet to play a melody created by stringing together the children’s names. She enjoys seeing this score on the professionals’ music stands alongside works by Beethoven and Haydn, and the sense that her students are claiming their own very personalised place in a grand history.

Violinists Carreño and Boris Suárez, violist Ismel Campos and cellist Aimon Mata have been performing together since their early teens in El Sistema’s flagship youth orchestra, and are now principal artists in the Orquestra Sinfónica Simón Bolívar. Playing now in unison they make a series of quick, instinctive decisions. The score has minimal articulation, but the teacher hears little echoes of the musicians’ classical repertoire coming through, imbuing the children’s names with vitality and elegance.

Afterwards, the Quartet share a fruit snack with the children and the parents who’ve carpooled into the city. The Pizzi kids then join the Venezuelans for a sometimes creaky but high-spirited version of Eine kleine Nachtmusik. And, finally, those with programs collect the musicians’ signatures or move, beaming, in and out of the various configurations being photographed.

As the thrilled children leave the studio, Carreño, 32, a tall, heavy-set man with a gracious manner, puts his violin carefully back in its case. Recently, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 has taken on a new dimension for him. The work – which Shostakovich wrote in three days as he despaired at his failing health and enforced membership of the Communist Party – is dedicated “To the Victims of Fascism and War”. The Simón Bolívar String Quartet usually choose their repertoire a year or two in advance, and had not known of the political and economic chaos into which Venezuela was about to descend. “Now our country is living all these struggles,” says Carreño, “a piece like this is essential.”

Only a few days earlier, the musicians learned that one of Ismel Campos’ viola students had been killed during an anti-government protest. The 18-year-old had silently approached a line of soldiers with his palms in the air, before being shot. In the following weeks, the ranks of Venezuela’s El Sistema musicians will take to the frontline of further protests, carrying their instruments. But directly after receiving this news, the Quartet, then playing in Canberra, had dedicated Shostakovich’s work to their young protégé.

“It was a very hard moment for us. It is a very hard moment for us,” Carreño admits. “But you have to focus on hope and the desire to be better. And the music we create is not to create this side or the other side, it’s to integrate. Whatever we do is in the name of integration, of orchestration.”

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of several books, including A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Tall Man. Her latest book, The Arsonist, is out now.

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