Last year saw star maestro Gustavo Dudamel finish his five-year tenure as principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Unsurprisingly, he left quite a legacy.
‘He had a real musical impact on the orchestra,’ says GSO general manager and artistic director Helena Wessman. ‘There was a close connection [with the musicians]. There was a lot of energy and joy, but also very hard work, and the will to work very hard together.’
Moreover, the Venezuelan conductor introduced El Sistema to Sweden. In 2010 the GSO launched the vast outreach initiative that has transformed thousands of young lives in Dudamel’s home country, arming children with instruments, music education and confidence. Dudamel himself is one of the most famous products of the scheme.
In the beginning, a single Gothenburg school adopted the idea; this month 10 schools in the region are taking part. ‘As an orchestra, we’re in close contact with all those schools and that’s really important for us,’ says Wessman. ‘The tuition is done by teachers from the municipal music schools, and our musicians visit the schools regularly to meet the children, play with them and talk about the instruments; there were 10 visits last year.’
She continues: ‘The children also come to the concert hall. And by January 2012, the children had learned so much that they were able to play with the orchestra – 150 children on stage for a sold out performance, it was amazing.’
The country has a well-established system of music education, reaching hundreds of thousands of youngsters every year: was there a real need for El Sistema Sweden? ‘It is filling a gap,’ says Wessman, ‘but with the social perspective. El Sistema is about helping children to interact and teaching them to be part of society, part of a group – encouraging that discipline, but through music. It’s a project of integration, social training and music.’
Also geared towards younger listeners is the GSO Puls scheme, which sees a composer and a theatre director work with the orchestra for a residency of two years. The result is a commission targeted specifically at children.
As part of another GSO Puls strand, Autumn 2012 saw the orchestra invite a staggering 800 children to the concert hall. ‘We wanted the children to meet with a musician in small groups of five,’ says Wessman. ‘Since we have a lot of children and a lot of musicians, we had to move out of the hall, and used 50 caravans for the meetings. The musicians really loved it.’
The GSO is also investing its in online presence: it recently became the first Swedish orchestra to launch a digital concert hall, streaming concerts for free. With cameras installed around the performance space, a studio, and an in-house digital team to produce the broadcasts, this represents a real commitment from the ensemble. The long-term goal is to broadcast every concert.
To say the orchestra remains unaffected by the financial crisis crippling arts organisations the world over would be an understatement: this year it will see a remarkable rise of almost 10 per cent in its government grants. ‘This is marvellous, we’re really happy about that because it gives us a really strong platform,’ says Wessman.
The increase can be put down, in part, to the orchestra’s keen dedication to social and educational engagement. But Wessman explains that the GSO and several other major arts organisations in the Gothenburg area which also work on an international level, had a ‘profound political discussion on whether the region wanted to keep it at that level, or not’. The answer was a resounding yes.