Venezuelan Brass Ensemble, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 30 January 2011

Under the aegis of the festival of brass which was held at Manchester’s other venerable music venue, the RNCM, the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble arrived in Manchester for the first time and the formation are less than a decade old. They are in fact but one segment of the Venezuelan state orchestra, better known internationally as ‘El systema’. The underlying logic of El Systema is simple in its aims, yet equally profound in its influence. Over a period of thirty years of hard work a national (and now international ) network has built up to bring together children from disadvantaged backgrounds in order to teach them the basic skills of musicianship and beyond required as well as equipping the youths with instruments with which they can practice and subsequently hone their craft.

For this afternoon’s session, an eclectic repertoire was selected, reflecting the open-minded approach of the ensemble itself. Thus classical, jazz and world beats all combined into a seamless whole, but throughout the music was expertly guided by German conductor Thomas Clamor who entered into the general fun atmosphere of the day. For the first half the an initially pared down version of the ensemble began with a brief modern symphonic piece ‘Gran fanfaria’ by Giancarlo Castro which sounded positively Bernstein-esque in inspiration and shifted from a languid introduction into a more uptempo number. The audience felt very much at home with the concept of a brass ensemble and in parts at least it did conjur up the traditional British brass band, though in many other respects it was anything but. For the remainder of the first half, the ensemble performed one of the staple pieces of the modern classic repertoire, ‘Mussorgsky’s ‘Picture at an exhibition’ which is a wonderfully impressionistic offering. Of note here was the game of musical chairs that band members entered into (and continued to do so) as the full ensemble finally made its way onto the stage. What really impressed here was the use of both French horns and trumpets to create a quasi-string orchestral sound. This was received with rapturous applause and no less than three encores before the interval.

The mood changed somewhat for the second half and the audience was immediately transported to downtown New York and the barrios of the Latin quarter inhabited during the 1950s and beyond by the Puerto Rican immigrants who made the city their new home. A favourite of Latin Americana, ‘Tico Tico’ was played as a fiery mambo with a significantly enhanced percussion section comprising bongo, congo, timbales and cowbell, and this was the ideal way to introduce what was to be the piece most in the audience had really come to hear, the ‘Symphonic Dances from West Side Story’ and one that had all too obvious parallels with the urban landscape of modern day Venezuela. After another brief bout of musical chairs, it was straight into the all too familiar main theme with fingerclapping and the entire brass section in unison. Indeed the brass in fact worked especially well here creating an electric tension which would reach its zenith in a thrilling crescendo. It was like a trip down memory lane with the sound of the bongo conjuring up the big three bandleaders who personified the mambo era, Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. Needless to say the reed section were producing full on and no-holds barred musical mayhem as the audience delighted in the Latin rhythms with particularly good work from the timbales player and even vibraphonist during the calmer, jazzier passages of nocturnal life in the Big Apple. The main theme was emphasized at one stage by the use of muted trombones, hinting perhaps at the influence of Aaron Copeland and his expansive musical vision of the United States while the ever popular ‘Maria’ was introuced with great subtlety with barely a whisper and began in a mournful, quasi-funereal tone. For a richly deserved encore (by which stage the audience were up on their feet and had already delivered one of several standing ovations and encores of applause), a nine piece percussion section performed a breakneck speed Afro-Cuban number that evoked Dizzy Gillespie’s masterly ‘Gillespiana’ suite. A terrific way, then, to spend a Sunday afternoon and the audience were acutely aware and appreciative of all the effort required by the individual band members to reach this standard of excellence. Definitely a triumph of the human spirit over adversity and a moment to savour.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993