Vaughn Ormseth - Senior Producer Performance Today
When the then 24-year old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel burst on the North American classical music scene in 2005—making his Los Angeles Philharmonic debut in September of that year at the Hollywood Bowl—few U.S. Americans had heard of either him or of El Sistema, the vibrant music education program that had nurtured and propelled him from childhood. By 2009, all that had changed, at least so far as Dudamel himself was concerned; in September of that year he succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cinching a level of superstardom rare in the classical music world.
But the eyebrow-raising suddenness of Dudamel's early ascent sparked further interest in his origins, including El Sistema, which have since taken on an air of mystery and (perhaps especially given Venezuela's roguish politics) the exotic. Solo-instrumental prodigies perennially intrigue us with both their technical and expressive gifts—powers that seem to flirt with the supernatural—but the niche they occupy, though elite, is as continuously re-populated as classical music itself. On the other hand, conducting, a frequently misunderstood art, anoints prodigies of its own only once or so a generation, if that. A full orchestra is unwieldy instrument to master, let alone practice. Yet in fall 2009, there Dudamel was, in trademark polo shirt and Botticellian hair, all of 28, rehearsing one of the great U.S. orchestras from his podium at Disney Hall as its music director.
How did he pull it off? Will he prove to be, as a number of major critics inevitably suggested, more heat than light?
Let the Children Play, a documentary celebration of El Sistema which screened nationwide one night only last Thursday, explores these questions, locating and tracing Dudamel's artistic development within the earthy, passionate, and unabashedly idealistic swirl of Venezuela's now renowned program. Though woven through with interview responses from El Sistema's founder José Antonio Abreu, whose Yoda-like presence both grounds and buoys the film's more exultant moments, Let the Children Play is less a history of the program and its enduring success in the face of Venezuela's jolting politics, and more a kaleidoscopic portrait of its philosophy and young—sometimes very young—participants.
Nor is Let the Children Play primarily about Dudamel. "I am just another member of El Sistema," he says late in the film, by which point we've been sufficiently immersed in its culture and his history within it to know he's not being disingenuous. Dudamel does receive persuasive acclaim onscreen for his enormous gift and its potential from such senior luminaries (now peers) as Sir Simon Rattle, Plácido Domingo, and Daniel Barenboim. Abreu remarks on the "spendor of [his] intuition." And as El Sistema's most famous living success story he serves as the film's center of gravity.
But through deft portraiture and fast-paced relocations, Let the Children Play stays true to its title, showing firsthand how the power of great music transforms the unlikeliest of young lives, and bidding us to join the dance, which excludes no one, no matter how poor or culturally removed from the classical concert experience.
The film opens at dusk on a bleak plateau somewhere in rural Bolivia; through a muddy windshield and wipers, we see high snowcapped mountains and hear the voice of a young musician as he explains, over one of J.S. Bach's cello suites, why he chose to study the cello. (Choosing one's instrument so young is a primal motif in the film—more than a choice, it can become a visceral identification, a re-focusing of the self.)
We eventually learn that the car we're in belongs to the leader of an El Sistema ensemble in Bolivia, and we later follow one of his young musicians who leaves to perform in a village away from his home city. From Bolivia and Venezuela, the film visits satellite ensembles in Scotland, Korea, and Los Angeles, among other places, each notable for its uniqueness but ringing with the universal heartbeat of what has become an international movement.
Let the Children Play doesn't flinch from the forlornness and poverty of its young musicians' homes and neighborhoods (including Dudamel's; he takes us to the apartment where he grew up in Barquisimento, a place so cramped he slept over his grandparents' bed in a hammock). But it never lets those settings intrude on the kids' own often joyous accounts of learning an instrument and playing in an orchestra, or on their parents' obvious gratitude and pride.
The film reflects El Sistema's respect for musical traditions native to particular countries. We see children playing zampoñas, hand-held windpipes, in a Bolivian performance. An amplified pop singer opens an exultant concert from the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in a gritty street in Caracas. But we mostly hear from the children's own unvarnished performances in piercingly direct and musical fragments, sensitively knit together with mandolin interludes by cinematographer Nascuy Linares. Underscoring El Sistema's core belief in music's universal power to connect, we also hear ravishing passages of Beethoven's 9th as performed by Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
"Essentially [El Sistema] is a social system that fights poverty," explains Abreu. "A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides." Let the Children Play is often grand and sometimes deeply moving, but exuberance isn't its only idiom. The most striking characteristic shared by the film's young interviewees, regardless of nationality, is seriousness. Once captivated by purpose—purpose they make their own through the practice and performance of timeless music—they are free to explore worlds of meaning and expression they had not even known existed. Hope follows naturally. And the music soon works its way into their D.N.A., just as it did with a certain hyperkinetic curly-haired young conductor in L.A.