Orchestrating a Favela’s revival

The celebrated English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham possessed a famously self-deprecating wit, once proclaiming; “There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together.

The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.” Thankfully no orchestra has yet had the gumption to take him at his word. The Sinfônica Heliópolis could, however, contest this claim on two counts: not only has its music captured the hearts of audiences the world over, the story of the project has proven an inspirational draw for young musicians across Brazil. From the birth of the orchestra to its arrival in Europe this month for a tour of Germany, Holland and the UK, just what did go on in between?

Heliópolis is the largest favela in the city of São Paulo, and its unhappy reputation for misery spread across Brazil in 1996 when a fire devastated a large section of the district. The musical director and composer Maestro Silvio Baccarelli was moved to act. He arrived at a local school and announced his intention to sponsor two children from each class to study music at a new centre he was to open: the Instituto Baccarelli. Curiosity and scepticism greeted the plans, but after only a few months a group of 36 youths had come together to form a string orchestra. The public’s expectations of a favela were being challenged with each new recital of Beethoven, Mendelssohn or Brahms, and the children themselves were no less surprised. Baccarelli reports that the first group of pupils had arrived with dreams of playing the drums, or the guitar; they had never seen a violin before, and the method of playing one was a complete mystery. It did not take the conductor long to win his new charges over to a wide range of classical instruments.

It is nevertheless remarkable that by 2004 the Instituto had grown big enough to support a full symphony orchestra. The Sinfônica Heliópolis comprises 75 musicians, and by the end of October the Instituto will be host to 2,500 students. Thanks to a generous range of bursaries and scholarships, young musicians are welcomed from all corners of Brazil, from as far afield as Manaus and Fortaleza.

Playing in the orchestra is a highly-regarded honour, not taken lightly; international tours, concerts with MPB stars such as João Bosco and a concert for the Pope have figured amongst a varied and prestigious recent schedule. The pupils have responded with dedication, and becoming a professional musician is the dream shared by every member of the Sinfônica Heliópolis. The Instituto’s Vice-President Sr Ventureli explains; “Growing up in a poor community, young people lack role models. It’s important to have a dream. Our young musicians find a dream, something to aim for. Playing in the best concert halls in Brazil brings them pride and confidence to achieve more in life.”

The renowned Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, now patron of the project, was so impressed during a visit that he immediately hired one of the lead double-bassists, Adriano Costa Chavez, to play with the Tel-Aviv Philharmonic. Three years before meeting Mehta, Adriano had no idea what classical music was and had never seen a double bass. After being rewarded with a contract in Tel-Aviv he practiced for eight hours every day, and took English and Hebrew classes nightly.

The Sinfônica Heliópolis itself has been led here, to the very centre of London, for a concert on October 15th at St John’s Smith Square. Thousands of miles away from the ash and rubble of a burning favela in 1996, the journey has been transformative for everyone involved. The orchestra has started together and they will finish together; their success is the product of so many people giving a damn in between.

On Friday October 15th the Sinfônica Heliópolis will perform at St John’s Church Smith Square, London. The concert will feature works by Dvorák and Villa-Lobos, and begins at 19.30. For more information please visit www.sjss.org.uk

A new system

Latin America is starting to tune into the musical possibilities for social development. El Sistema, a Venezuelan project, is a famous example; a network of music schools attended by 250,000 pupils, of whom 90% come from underprivileged backgrounds. The program has over 30 symphony orchestras, the most well-known being the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and following their week long residency at the Southbank Centre in 2009, their sister orchestra, The Teresa Carreno Youth Orchestra, recently performed at the Royal Festival Hall in October of 2010.

By Oliver Eccles


Sinfônica Heliópolis @ St John’s, Smith Square
15th Oct, 7.30pm, £10 adv / £7 concs
sjss.org.uk 020 7222 1061

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