The Bahia Youth Symphony Orchestra: El Sistema, Brazilian Style

February 20, 2014

BahiaEl Sistema, which, you’ll remember, started in Venezuela in 1975, is always the go-to example of a publicly funded youth orchestra — and more broadly an example of how music can cue positive social change and promote individual upward mobility. By one estimate, more than 70 percent of the players in Venezuela’s sistema come from poverty-stricken or working class families.

In this country, El Sistema USA promotes more than 50 similar programs; in California, you think of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), which gets its direction, in large part, from Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, himself a graduate of “the system.”

But there are many other similar programs in this country and around the world, notably, from Brazil, the Bahia Youth Symphony Orchestra, which will perform this Friday night at the Cohan Center at Cal Poly; on Saturday at the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis and then on Sunday at the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University in Santa Rosa. This is the last leg of the Bahia Orchestra’s first tour of this country. In recent years they’ve appeared in London, Berlin, and Lucerne.

Incidentally, Bahia is that Brazilian state on the Atlantic Coast known as the seat of the Catholic Church in Brazil, as well as one of the original portals for the slave trade from Africa.

The youth orchestra is lead by Ricardo Castro, a piano prodigy and the first musician from Latin America to win the Leeds piano competition. He did it in 1993 and then in 2007 went on to become founder and general director of NEOJIBA — Núcleos Estaduais de Orquestras Juvenis e Infantis da Bahia. The idea was to replicate El Sistema and Castro has adopted a similar role to that of El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu.

“A deep conviction that a musician can and must add a lot more to society than just entertain privileged audiences with good concerts.” - Bahia Youth Symphony director Ricardo Castro

In an interview with The Guardian last May, Castro, who will conduct this weekend, described what inspired him to begin NEOJIBA: “A deep conviction that a musician can and must add a lot more to society than just entertain privileged audiences with good concerts. This, together with the discovery of El Sistema in Venezuela, gave me the necessary strength to join the ‘play and fight’ idea that became the motto in Venezuela and now is spreading everywhere in the world, where thousands of children are showing amazing skills when they play together with a common goal.”

Among the youth orchestra’s high points: touring some of the great European halls in only its third year and then on its fifth anniversary, in October 2012, performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Brazil, with 450 musicians and singers. “It was a very strong moment,” remembered Castro, “especially because the families and the people of Bahia could witness a real miracle.”

This weekend, the symphony, which is made up of players between 14 and 18, is featuring French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Thibaudet, now 52, has had a stellar career and is one of the first names you think of in French piano repertory. (He also loves jazz.)

The program at the Mondavi Center includes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major; Silvestre Revueltas’s Sensemaya; Villa-Lobos’s Trenzinho do Caipira and Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No. 2.

“One of the most interesting things about this concert is the variety of music to be played,” says Jeremy Ganter, associate executive director at the Mondavi Center, as well as director of programming. “It’s a little unusual to get such a mix of standard repertoire and selections from their own culture. The other thing they bring is tremendous energy.”

The Mondavi concert will include a talk beforehand given by Leopoldo Bernucci, a distinguished professor of Latin American Studies.

In a YouTube video about the group, Richard Young, a violinist and teacher with the Bahia Orchestra Project, summed up the great hope of the symphony: “It’s not set up to train people to become professional musicians. A few will be. But what is more important is how we are preparing them, in the context of music, to be more responsible; to be more productive, more disciplined people. Also to do all of this with passion.”

The Bahia Orchestra Project, Feb. 22, 8 p.m., Mondavi Center, $35-$72. More information.

Feb. 23, 3 p.m., SSU's Weill Hall, $40-$85. More information

Mark MacNamara (macnamband.com) is a San Francisco-based journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Nautilus. In recent months in SFCV, among other pieces, he has written about a music director accused of embezzlement; a profile of conductor Alondra de la Parra; an essay about the controversy over ‘trigger warnings’ for college courses; a report on a strike at the Metropolitan Opera; and a feature about the housing problem for artists in San Francisco.