When I meet Venezuelan conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa after her rehearsal with the Oxford University Orchestra, I am taken aback by her exuberance as she exclaims (in spite of her day of arduous travel followed by three hours of Shostakovich and Bartók), ‘I’m having the time of my life!’. And, with this remark, she sets the tone for our conversation.
Luis-Bassa has lived in the UK for the past sixteen years and alongside conducting the Hallam Sinfonia in Sheffield and Haffner Orchestra in Lancaster, she is a professor of conducting at her alma mater, London’s Royal College of Music. Despite joining Venezuela’s acclaimed youth music programme, El Sistema, as an oboist aged fifteen, with full parental support for her musical interests, Luis-Bassa came to her tertiary musical studies relatively late. After starting a degree in Tourism, she enrolled at the Instituto Universitario de Estudios Musicales at 22, transferring her concentration from oboe to conducting as soon as the course was established. This was a natural move given her enduring fascination with the discipline, learning full orchestral scores alongside her individual orchestral parts. She became the first person to gain a degree in orchestral conducting in Venezuela and moved to England to begin her postgraduate study at RCM, where she was subsequently awarded the Junior Fellowship in opera conducting.
Discussing her musical influences she cites some of the usual suspects, ‘very much Bernstein, a lot of Karajan’, adding that theirs were the best vinyl recordings available to her growing up in Venezuela. On summer courses she attended in the UK she remembers encountering performances by Abbado and Rattle, but after meeting him personally at RCM in 1998, Luis-Bassa identifies conductor Sir Colin Davis as a strong influence and in many respects, her musical mentor. As she observed him, Luis-Bassa became enraptured by his respectful treatment of orchestras which provoked a desire in her to follow him ‘not only as a musician, but as a human being’, recalling his advice, ‘they are the ones playing Natalia, give them a smile – we exist because of them.’ She remembers one of her early performances of Brahms’ Second Symphony where the bassoons made a conspicuous mistake in the second movement. After the concert she discovered the bassoonists resolved to stop playing at the moment she had glared at them. ‘By looking at someone, look what I did? We are human, we all make mistakes. The way is to smile at them, encourage them.’ In her opinion, this attitude towards orchestral playing has left a permanent mark on the industry: ‘Conductors are not dictators anymore, orchestras have power’.
When I ask her about the secret of El Sistema’s success, she offers a tripartite explanation: its inversion of convention by immersing children in orchestral playing from the outset, its breaking down of elitist barriers and its emphasis on the development of social skills. She hails its founder, José Antonio Abreu, as ‘a genius’, utterly deserving of efforts made to nominate him for the Nobel peace prize, particularly since founding the project initially meant visiting impoverished areas of Caracas and engaging in blunt exchanges. ‘He had the guts to say “give me your gun and I’ll give you a violin”.’ Operating all over the country and involving about 300,000 young people, the majority of whom are from poor socio-economic backgrounds, the programme receives considerable funding from the government.
Though it only emerged on the international stage in recent years, Luis-Bassa is keen to highlight the programme’s existence for decades prior to the current government who have, in some ways, caught the wave of El Sistema’s success and appropriated it for themselves given its ‘socialist’ appeal and opportunity to promote Venezuela internationally. Luis-Bassa remains hopeful that British imitations of the El Sistema movement will, in time, achieve success given that there appears to be a need for them. ‘There are too many young people doing nothing … the London riots could have been avoided,’ she claims. While she concedes that there is more red tape to navigate in the UK, there are also ‘laws here that don’t exist in Latin America’; namely the resources and infrastructure available that lend themselves to such initiatives. In Venezuela, ‘conditions are hard, we rehearse in garages … With more practice and less nothing’, she reassures me, ‘I’m faithful that it will work.’
Luis-Bassa modestly puts her success in the UK down to luck. ‘Even as a woman and a foreigner, rejection has been the last thing I have experienced’. She describes a ‘why not, let’s try?’ attitude she has encountered in Britain. ‘That’s the thing I adore about this country: they like challenges.’ Since she considers her career to have been relatively obstacle-free, I feel I have to enquire as to why there are still so few professional female conductors. Her face falls and her eyes narrow. ‘There are more than you think,’ she tells me. Rather than blaming archaic musical institutions or suggesting discrimination in the industry, her response is imbued with characteristic optimism. She asserts that the responsibility lies in the perseverance of aspiring female musicians who must ‘keep working, not hesitate and not doubt a single inch of being able to do it.’ She names Marin Alsop and Xian Zhang as two women who are quietly ‘clearing the path for the ones that are about to come.’ She is convinced it’s not a matter of gender, ‘we are all able to do it as far as we are able to convince the ensemble we’re in front of.’ Looking me in the eye, she reaffirms, ‘we will get there – and this will soon be out of the repertoire of questions I get asked’, which is followed by a cascade of laughter.
As we reach the onerous topic of the future of classical music, Luis-Bassa cuts to the chase; ‘why hasn’t it died yet?’ To her, classical music is rooted in live performance, ‘the orchestra could have been replaced by robots years ago’; she claims that we need live performance with all its mistakes and peculiarities. ‘It will never die because it’s different every time and we need it, we are asking every day to have the experience of live music’. Brushing off concerns of the aging audience demographic, she puts it down to factors of time and money. This relaxed attitude is perhaps informed by her liberal approach to the relationship between classical and pop music. ‘I have always said that Mozart was the Michael Jackson of his age.’ She is quick to establish that as classical, pop and folk music are all traditions specific to certain times and places and since ‘the traditions should never die’, they will all be worthy of attention in future generations. ‘Pop music needs to be present since it is part of the idiosyncrasy of people; keep it, support it, dance to it.’ The inflexible categories we place on music can be problematic, she suggests, given the cross-fertilisation between genres, referencing the influence of popular folk music on composers like Brahms, Dvorak and Bartok (the latter notably dedicated his life to collecting folk melodies).
Though she maintains she is still in the ‘discovery period’ of her life, Luis-Bassa’s musical taste is eclectic, ranging from salsa to Bruckner and beyond, but her light tone is replaced with one of absolute sincerity when our discussion veers back towards Brahms. ‘I adore him. He is a composer I identify with.’ Carrying the burden of Beethoven’s legacy, Brahms failed to produce his first symphony until he had reached his 40s, and in her mid-20s, Luis-Bassa made the decision not to perform Brahms symphonies until she reached the age he was when he wrote them, ‘well, 43 came and I had to do it. I am loving it.’ As time escapes us, I can’t help feeling left with a strange sense that Natalia Luis-Bassa is somehow a human embodiment of El Sistema, exuding warmth, musicality and energy, yet humble at her core.