6 years ago

Volume 18 Issue 6 - March 2013

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  • Toronto
  • Jazz
  • April
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BEHIND THE SCENESToronto Sistema’s David VisentinNo Neutral GroundBy Rebecca ChuaEven when you arrive slightly late to the party,you sometimes still get to have your cake andeat it too. In terms of having his cake, DavidVisentin was only eight years old when hestarted playing the violin. Various relatives wereplaying fiddle at the time; one was also a jazz violinist;and his own brother, who started on thepiano, later switched to violin as well. He was wellon his way.Still, even when you have made all the rightchoices, the personal trajectory of a career musiciancan begin to pall, as it did for Visentin, 16years into a comfortable and satisfying associationwith the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Afterperforming onstage at the plush, 2,300-seat CentennialConcert Hall for the umpteenth time, Visentinsays, “We would go out into minus 30–40 degreeweather — this was average for us — but the tragedyof that weather is that there are people who liveoutside. There is still a very large urban Aboriginalpopulation and, many times on these evenings, wewould pass people sniffing glue — because that wasthe big epidemic happening at the time in downtownWinnipeg.“I remember this occasion, I’d already beenthinking about the relevance of what I was doingon stage as a musician for audiences that wouldget out to warm parking lots and get into warmcars to warm homes. I was trying to reconcile whatDavid Visentin.I call the distance between the stage and the sidewalk. The next morning,I read the headline in the newspaper that one of them had diedand another was still in a coma — and it really came home to me personallythat what I was doing on that stage had very little relevance tothe sidewalk. I felt that if my art was to have any meaning, it had toextend further.”In retrospect, he admits, “I wish I had come to that conclusion earlier.”He was in his early 40s, and it would still be a few years beforehe was to be offered the position of associate dean of the Glenn GouldSchool, and dean of the Young Artists Performance Academy at the RoyalConservatory. “And guess what? I was being offered the opportunity oftraining the next generation of musicians like myself.”Then came a series of events in 2009 that was to change his life forever.It’s what Visentin describes as “an amazing Celebration of MusicWeek, where Venezuela essentially came to Toronto and took it over.”The prestigious Glenn Gould prize, which “promotes the vital connectionbetween artistic excellence and the transformation of lives,” wasbeing awarded to Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistemain Venezuela.To celebrate the occasion, Gustavo Dudamel, often regarded as theposter child for El Sistema and now the director of the Los AngelesPhilharmonic, led the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela in theirCanadian debut. Among the many events being held were 14 intimateconcerts at high schools and community youth centres featuring Venezuelanchamber ensembles, an international music symposium and aclimactic concert for 14,000 students at the Rogers Centre.As a member of the board of the Glenn Gould Foundation, Visentinwas in the front row of these events and was so blown away by thecalibre of the young Venezuelan musicians that he spoke to Abreu and“Social value is really thefundamental questionthat Sistema is notanswering ... but asking”offered his services to El Sistema. He was invitedas a masterclass guest artist for two weeks, toteach at various centres throughout Venezuela.Now the executive and artistic director ofSistema Toronto, Visentin has found in thisremarkable program a way of bridging the stageand the sidewalk that he has long sought. Begunas a social rescue program in 1975 among the most poverty-strickenand violent neighbourhoods in Venezuela, El Sistema has transformedthe lives of more than a million children in Venezuela alone — and theprogram is rapidly gaining traction in many parts of the world.It’s been said that El Sistema has brought the joy of achievement, themotivation to strive for personal growth and betterment and the loveof learning to children who would otherwise be part of a lost generation.Visentin points to an important distinction: “Sistema describesitself as a social program through music, not a music program that hassocial benefit.” Abreu describes it thus: “The orchestra and chorus aremore than artistic structures, they are models and schools of social lifebecause to play and sing together means to intimately coexist whilestriving toward perfection and excellence, to follow a rigorous regimenof discipline and coordination and to seek harmonic integration,to foster ethical and aesthetic values in the awakening of sensibilityand forging values.”Abreu refers to Mother Teresa as having been the one who realizedthat the most tragic aspect of poverty is not the lack of bread or a roofoverhead, but the feeling of insignificance that poverty breeds, thelack of identity and self-worth that all too often spirals into violence.In contrast, it is the redemptive role of music that leads to the child’sbecoming a role model for the family and community, by inspiring inthe child a sense of responsibility, perseverance and punctuality andeventually inspiring new hopes and dreams.Abreu refers to the world crisis invoked by the historian Arnold Toynbee— not the economic crisis which everyone seems to talk about, buta spiritual crisis for which religion offers no solution. It is now only artin the form of music, Abreu says, that can synthesize the wisdom of theages and provide creative space for culture in the community, not just as56 March 1 – April 7, 2013

Sistema Toronto musicians.a luxury for the elites, butas something in which allcan truly participate.Visentin agrees: “Ibelieve that poverty hasmany faces. While Torontois not Caracas and Canadais not Venezuela, wedon’t have the extremesof poverty and violencethat are expressedin Venezuela, but we dohave poverty and we dohave violence and that’swhere there’s no differencebetween Canada andVenezuela.“Dr Abreu is passionatelyopposed to the wasteof time — ‘the perverse useof leisure time’ is what hecalls it. Time-wasting, forAbreu, could mean beingforced to sell T-shirts eighthours a day in Caracas to make money for your family or it could bewasting time in front of the computer when you could be putting it toproductive use or it could be gang membership.“Poverty needs to be seen in more than just a socioeconomic context.Poverty of spirit is no respecter of class, because that’s ultimately whereeveryone meets, even in contexts where people seem to have everythinggoing for them. It’s a great leveller when you see that everyonehas parts of themselves that are impoverished. Some have the meansto address them, some do not. And this is where Sistema has a value.”Visentin describes this as a shift in awareness:“When you are looking at it through adifferent lens, it changes everything that youdeliver — your knowledge and your experience.Because I can teach a violin lesson, I can coachan ensemble, I can conduct an orchestra, butwhen you’re imparting qualities of humanity— citizenship — the first thing you have todo is turn the mirror on yourself and look atwhat it is you really have to give. So that againlevels the playing field, because we’re all tryingto be better people, better family members,community members.He pauses for a moment before resuming:“So this question of social value is reallythe fundamental question that Sistema is notanswering necessarily, but asking. Creating anenvironment, bringing people together in thisjoint endeavour around this body of great literatureand art, with remarkable results. Wesee everything as inextricably linked. It’s quitewondrous and frightening at the same timebecause there’s no way to be separate, you haveto belong in a way that draws the best out ofyou or it draws you away, I don’t think there’sa neutral ground.”Now into its second year, Sistema Torontooffers its after-school program to 80 youngstring players from Grades 1–6, who comein for two and a half hours a day, four days aweek, 38 weeks a year. Explains Visentin, “Weask only three things: to see themselves as ateam, to always help each other and to alwaysdo your best.” It’s the same dictum that appliesto their teachers, all accomplished musicians,who are selected as much for their passion fortheir craft as for their ability to teach.On any of these days, as three o’clock approaches, music stands arewheeled out, chairs whisked into place and various string instrumentsassiduously tuned in anticipation of the children who will play them.“We’re often asked: what’s the curriculum, what’s the pedagogy, whereare the texbooks, where’s the handbook?” says Visentin. “There’s noone-size-fits-all approach. The beauty is that it’s created in each community.”At Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School, for example, inaddition to classical works, they also learn Tibetan folk songs and storiesthat reflect the Hungarian Roma community, not to mention TheGreat Canadian Story, a composition by one of their teachers, RonaldRoyer. Visentin sees this as an opportunity for the children to expressthemselves not just to their own community but to the other communitieswhere they are inevitably invited to perform, forming a networkof communal music making.For its own part, Sistema Toronto is already looking to extend its programbeyond Parkdale Junior and Senior Public School. Last year, PeterOundjian, director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was appointedthe first honourary music ambassador for Sistema Toronto’s Playing toPotential music education program, with its focus on rehearsing andperforming as a member of an orchestra. At the same time, when LeonardCohen was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize for lifetime achievement,he chose Sistema Toronto to receive the ,000 City of Toronto ProtégéPrize. Just the other day, a few University of Toronto students adoptedSistema Toronto for its Philanthropy and Youth project, which was upfor a ,000 prize for the best presentation.El Sistema-inspired programs are proliferating across Canada — thereare at least 12 programs being run from New Brunswick to BritishColumbia. “What’s very exciting, “ says Visentin, “is that there’s amomentum happening, more activity happening in Canada per capitathan, I believe, anywhere else in the world, and Ontario is leading inthe number of programs that are Sistema-inspired.”Rebecca Chua is a Toronto-based journalistwho writes on culture and the arts.A NEW STATE-OF-THE-ART REHEARSAL HALLWELCOMES THE KINDRED SPIRITS ORCHESTRAThe Kindred Spirits Orchestra has performedfor 2 seasons at Toronto’s renowned GlennGould Studio to great acclaim, sold-outaudiences, and standing ovations. Since 2011their season has included a 6-concertsubscription series at Flato Markham Theatrefor the Performing Arts, 3 community outreachconcerts and 2 educational concerts. Led bythe charismatic Maestro Kristian Alexander theKSO enjoys enormous popularity andcontinues to attract avid audiences across the Greater Toronto Area.The KSO has recently moved their rehearsals to the Cornell Community CentreRehearsal Hall in east Markham. This 5,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility with superbacoustics will allow the KSO to continue growing. "We simply fell in love with the new hall, "said Jobert Sevilleno, General Manager of the Kindred Spirits Orchestra. "There is a lot ofexcitement and we can't wait to start the rehearsals for one of the most beautiful pieces inthe orchestral repertoire, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde.”Because this piece requires a larger orchestra the KSO is inviting musicians whoplay the following instruments to join the orchestra: flute, oboe,clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, horn, trumpet,trombone, mandolin, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and percussion.Rehearsals are every Tuesday from 7:15 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.For more information please e-mail or visitwww.KSOrchestra.caMarch 1 – April 7, 2013 57

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