November 05, 2009


El Sistema: Music to Change Life. A film by Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier. EuroArts DVD. $24.99.

Within a Dream: A Celebration of the Artistry of Richard Hickox. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

     Overtly celebratory productions are, in a sense, quite beyond criticism. They are generally of interest only to people who already know what is being celebrated, and those people need not be told if the person or event is wonderful (they believe that already) and will not listen if things seem to fall short (they will not believe that to be possible). So releases like these two inevitably have the flavor of “preaching to the converted,” a fact that their sheer exuberance underlines. This in no way means they are uninteresting or poorly produced: both the film El Sistema and the two-CD Richard Hickox set contain a great deal of worthy material. But too much adulation comes to seem as if those delivering it are trying a little too hard – not that fans of El Sistema or Hickox would ever feel that way.

     The Paul Smaczny/Maria Stodtmeier film is essentially an affirmation of a well-conceived program that has produced one international musical superstar – conductor Gustavo Dudamel – and has pulled hundreds of thousands of poor children into choirs and orchestras. This is El Sistema, brainchild of Venezuelan musician/politician José Antonio Abreu; and the documentary follows a number of wonderful stories (including Dudamel’s) in showing how the music-education program has brought many, many children out of the violence and hopelessness of the barrios and into a world filled with hope and opportunity. It is almost too uplifting for words – although there are plenty of words here, including some from Abreu himself. But there is a problem: El Sistema is essentially a political creation, and as such is now firmly under the control of Venezuelan caudillo and self-proclaimed “Bolivarian revolutionary” Hugo Chávez. Filmmakers get no access to El Sistema or to anything else in Venezuela without the approval of Chávez, and Chávez is not known for approving in-depth studies that show him, his policies or his nation in an unfavorable light. This situation throws something of a pall over El Sistema, which does not address its dependency on Chávez at all and remains focused on heartwarming stories. And the stories are heartwarming, with children as young as age two taken off the “mean streets” of the nation, taught the basics of music, provided with instruments and lessons in the hundreds of núcleos throughout the community, and given the chance to become part of an ensemble. The youngsters make music six days a week for four hours a day, and the film emphasizes that this time gives them respite from otherwise difficult lives, providing safety and a supportive environment. But consider: if this were occurring in, say, Fascist Italy or Communist Romania, questions would surely be raised about regimentation, about using the approach to generate support for the government and specifically for its leader, about the whole arrangement being a method of control and a tool for solidifying power. These are not questions that are present in El Sistema, and perhaps they could not have been asked while still allowing the filmmakers such extensive access to the program and its participants. Yet one wonders, in listening to Dudamel and others speak of the marvels of El Sistema, how much freedom they have to say anything less than adulatory, and how free the filmmakers would have been to include criticism if it had been given. This is not to take anything away from El Sistema as a film (it is a well-made documentary), from the music education it chronicles (which has clearly had remarkable successes), or from Abreu himself (who comes across as a dedicated and farsighted man). But hagiography, whether of a person or of a system, is always (almost by definition) overdone. In today’s Venezuela, it seems particularly out of place.

     The issues with the two-CD tribute to Richard Hickox are somewhat different. When a respected musical figure dies unexpectedly, as Hickox did in November 2008 at the age of 60, outpourings of affection are to be expected; and it only makes sense for Chandos, for which Hickox made some 280 recordings, to create a memorial tribute such as this one. The fact that royalties from Within a Dream are being donated to The Richard Hickox Foundation is a plus: the foundation promotes British music and composers and helps boost the careers of young British singers and conductors – worthy causes all. Furthermore, the two CDs contain more than 153 minutes of music – close to the medium’s 160-minute capacity – and so deserve to be called generous. But they are, for all that, a very limited look at Hickox, one of whose distinguishing characteristics was the ability to carry an overall concept of a lengthy work through the entire piece, even while effectively bringing out details of individual sections. There is, of course, no room for anything very long in a “tribute” production, and what Chandos offers here is 22 tracks of very well-played music not only by British composers (Bridge, Britten, Elgar, Stanford, Vaughan Williams and others) but also by Dvořák, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Verdi and more. The result is a set that proves that Hickox was versatile and had a fine ear for musical detail in shorter formats; but this is certainly not an in-depth exploration of the conductor. And fans of Hickox will likely have much of this material in their libraries already. This set is a lovely gesture and a money-raiser for a good cause, and certainly lets part of the Hickox style come through to listeners – but only part of it, and not necessarily the most distinguished or important elements.

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