Hope Comes With Strings Attached
By Nick OlleMay 30, 2012
Along with beauty queens and oil, Venezuela is exporting its music education program, El Sistema. These youth orchestras create excellence — and combat poverty. Meet the maestro who imagined it all.
In a dank, ground-floor room in downtown Caracas, around an oversize meeting table, we are waiting for the revered musician, educator and social innovator José Antonio Abreu.
A lonely piano in the corner and a handful of framed posters provide the only contrast to the pallid walls of this seemingly forgotten chamber at the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, the Simón Bolívar Music Foundation.
It is better known as the headquarters and home of El Sistema (The System), an extraordinary music education program and of el maestro Abreu, as he's known, its founder and inspiration.
Right now, I'm with another Abreu, the foundation's director of protocol, Isabella.
Any relation? I ask. "Yes, niece," she smiles. Musician? "I don't play, I applaud."
As well she might.
The Sound of Hope - El Sistema, Venezuela
El Sistema — her uncle's life's work — began humbly, with just 11 students in a garage, one night in 1975, before she was born. Now it is a way of life for about 350,000 students across 285 núcleos, or music schools.
The program is world-renowned both for musical excellence and as a social inclusion tool — some 70 per cent of the children in the program come from families living below the poverty line.
After five minutes, the maestro shuffles into the room, dwarfed by the coffee-carrying staffer who precedes him. Hunched and frail, Abreu appears every one of his 73 years, and it's hard to reconcile the shrinking image with the bigness of his persona.
Once he starts to talk it all makes sense. His eyes burn behind thick steel-rimmed glasses, and he speaks with an authority that belies his stature.
Recalling that fateful night 37 years ago, when less than a dozen musicians answered his call to form a youth orchestra, he says: "I was surprised that there was such a small turnout, but I spoke to them there and then, and said that even though there were so few of us, we would work very hard to become a big, international level orchestra."
A huge call at the time, but it seems almost modest in light of Abreu's subsequent achievements.
El Sistema now boasts roughly 500 ensembles, including world-class outfits such as the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. Some of its graduates (though in Abreu's view, "no one ever really leaves") are international stars. The prodigious 31-year-old conductor Gustavo Dudamel is the best known of them. Now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and one of the most sought-after conducting talents in the world, Dudamel remains passionate about his role as the Simón Bolívar Orchestra's artistic director.
Over the course of almost four decades, spanning seven different governments, El Sistema has flourished — and Abreu's has been a consistent voice championing artistic education in Venezuela. The arts, he says, have gone from being entirely outside of the education system to a pursuit respected "as much as technical careers, if not more". And classical music, so often considered a trapping of the elite, has actually become synonymous with social rescue here.
Music and social inclusion are the two fundamental, inseparable elements of El Sistema, and they lead, inexorably, to what Abreu calls "artistic wealth". He brims with enthusiasm as he explains it.
"It's more valuable than money, it is an aspiration," he says, "and poor children can absolutely be a part of this national wealth.
"Presenting art as an important element for all of society — this was always the dream of the great figures in the past, that art be the great hope for humanity."
Indeed, the maestro says it is especially important that students from poorer backgrounds have access to the best teachers, infrastructure and opportunities.
"I always say that culture for the poor cannot be poor culture, it has to be excellent.
"Curiously, the greatest talents tend to come from the poorest, most vulnerable areas.
"I think the challenge laid out for these children by life, and the possibility that music gives them to 'be someone' and bring pride to the family, is very strong."
The eldest of six children, Abreu has never married and is generally portrayed as a somewhat ascetic figure, entirely devoted to his work. "I have enough children already," he jokes.
In truth, he makes constant, often explicit, reference to El Sistema as a family. He says the program affects families "from the inside".
"Around the child is a family circle, around the family is a neighbourhood circle, and around the neighbourhood circle is the community circle. Through each child, the orchestra becomes a part of all of these circles and is seen as a beautiful symbol, a source of pride."
Gustavo Dudamel's contemporary and close friend Christian Vásquez — a conductor of international renown in his own right — says Abreu is literally a father figure to everyone involved in El Sistema.
Speaking with The Global Mail from Sweden, where he is conducting with the Gävle Symfoniorkester, Vásquez adds: "We grow up together, we spend years getting to know each other as people and as musicians. This is what el maestro Abreu wanted.
"He is a genius, a visionary. Even before El Sistema started, he'd already seen all of this. It's incredible how brilliant his mind is," Vásquez says.
"El Sistema is my life — everything I am musically and a large part of who I am as a person. Aside from music, El Sistema also teaches you values. For me it was the perfect complement to what my parents taught me.
"I really don't know what my life would have been otherwise, if I'd have gotten caught up in bad habits or another career. We always say El Sistema gives you an instrument in place of a weapon."
El Sistema 's ethos of inclusion has even reached the nation's jails, where eight prison orchestra programs already exist, with more on the way. Officials say the initiative has had a transformational effect on inmates, with many of the worst behaved completely reinventing themselves as model prisoners.
ARGUABLY ABREU'S GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT, however, has been to navigate his project through eight different administrations of every political colour. A former culture minister and government economic advisor, he is not without political nous; but El Sistema has never been politicised.
Until, perhaps, now.
Funded by the state since 1977, the program has functioned as an autonomous entity, overseen by various government ministries. But in 2010 President Hugo Chávez took direct control of the program, and the government now characterises El Sistema as another string to its social bow.
Some prominent musicians and Chávez opponents have taken offence at this supposed appropriation of Abreu's legacy. Expatriate Venezuelan musician Gabriela Montero, an El Sistema graduate, told The New York Times recently: "It's almost like he's stolen something that we lived with for the past 40 years and dirtied it with his presence."
Abreu won't be drawn on the issue, other than to say that he's never been subjected to political pressure and that all governments during El Sistema'shistory have contributed "enormously". Irrespective of its motivation, the Chávez administration has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the program, more than any previous government.
The public relations benefits for the national government are obvious, and no expense is spared when it comes to facilitating the international press — it's a positive story and they know it. In this country better known for obstructing journalists, I am assigned three different drivers, who shuttle me between núcleos in black, tinted-window SUVs.
On one such visit I'm joined by Bolivia Bottome, the Simón Bolívar Music Foundation's Director of institutional development and international affairs. A worldly woman who speaks perfect English, she says she's been with El Sistema for decades. Passionate about the program and happy to share her intimate knowledge of its inner workings, she lets on that el maestro is battling diabetes. "That's why he seems frail, but he's as sharp as ever," she notes.
We travel an hour out of Caracas to the núcleo in Guarenas, a working-class district in Miranda state. Director Edgar Rojas receives us and gives us a comprehensive tour of the facility, which caters for about 2,000 students, the youngest just five years old.
In line with El Sistema's methodology, the youngest children begin "body work", exercises in rhythm and physical expression. They immediately join a choir and begin with their first instruments — recorders and percussion — before being eased into string and wind instruments at age seven.
Rojas says that there is an emphasis on performance at all levels of learning.
"The idea is that performing becomes natural," he says. "From a young age, the students are performing and watching others perform, and this takes the pressure off formal performances."
BACK IN CARACAS, I visit the state-of-the-art Center for Social Action Through Music, a facility with every conceivable type of rehearsal and performance space.
In the breathtaking Simón Bolívar Hall, its namesake orchestra is rehearsing. Actually, Isabella Abreu tells me, it's the Simón Bolívar Orchestra "B" — "the younger ones, but they tour and perform as the Simón Bolívar Orchestra."
They sound magnificent.
Eighteen-year-old violinist Néstor Alvarez is a picture of concentration as he painstakingly repeats a tricky passage, seemingly oblivious to the intrusion of my camera.
Once he has the melody under his fingers, he notices the lens trained on him and smiles nervously.
Playing with this orchestra, he tells me, is a privilege.
"Ever since I started playing I wanted to be a part of this orchestra.
"In the future I want to conduct and eventually I'd like to teach. El Sistema has taught me everything I know and I'd like to pass it on to the next generation."
This shared sense of responsibility — as common to Alvarez and his peers as it is to Dudamel, Vásquez and theirs — is no accident. Abreu encourages the graduate-to-maestro transition, aware that promoting from within not only ensures a culture fit but perpetuates the program. He beams with pride as he tells me how Sir Simon Rattle, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, understands and endorses his method.
"When he came to Venezuela, he told me that the future of classical music is here," Abreu says.
SIR SIMON, IN FACT, is on record saying Abreu deserves a Nobel peace prize. He told The Guardian newspaper: "I never met Nelson Mandela, but I have met Abreu. It is a prize for peace, of course, and people will say that Abreu is not ending a war. But I've been to those barrios, and it is a war zone."
His sentiment is not extraordinary.
Australian Christopher Nicholls has also been to those barrios, having lived in Caracas for four years, from age seven to eleven. "It is a very dangerous place," he says. "There were three attempts on my life when I lived there and I was only 10 years old!"
As director of Sistema Australia, Nicholls is implementing the Venezuelan model in Australia. To describe Abreu, whom he met at a conference in Los Angeles in January 2012, Nicholls plumps for Gandhi instead of Mandela: "He's the Gandhi of music education, I really think he is.
"Sometimes when there is a fundamental need for change, you need a special agent of change. Abreu has been able to unlock humanity, to make people want to do their best and reach the unreachable.
"I saw the Simón Bolívar Orchestra with Dudamel in Los Angeles and it was the most outstanding playing I have ever seen. They are very different from other orchestras, and it is hard to put your finger on it. Each individual player is passionately, artistically playing their interpretation of the music at the same time as everyone else is, but at the same time they are playing together. It is gob-smackingly amazing.
"You see that intrinsic thing in good orchestras like the Vienna Phil and London Symph — but to see it in young people of all different backgrounds and economic circumstances, it is an extraordinary feat."
For the past year, 30 primary school children have been getting together three times a week after school for two-hour music sessions based on El Sistema principles.
The results, Nicholls says, have been amazing.
"The kids we work with at Laverton are amongst the poorest urban dwellers we'd find in Australia, from all kinds of backgrounds, from refugees to people from the lower socio-economic segments of our community.
"You wouldn't get a more dedicated bunch of young kids — and to compare what they looked like when we started to now, it is almost inconceivable. They were popcorn kids but now they're musicians, they've become professionals," Nicholls says.
Having poured his life savings into the project — "an incredibly stupid thing to do, I'm prone to a bit of missionary zeal" — Nicholls's challenge now is to make Crashendo sustainable.
The program receives financial and/or in-kind support from Hobsons Bay City Council, the Victorian Police and the Laverton P-12 College and, while he searches for new philanthropic backing, it's this "collaboration effect" that is keeping things afloat.
The good news is that he has an ally in Abreu, and el maestro is looking to bring the Simón Bolívar Orchestra to Australia, possibly as early as next year.
"It'll be a boost for sure — wherever the orchestra goes, it has a really big impact on the community, on governments, learning centres, schools," says Nicholls.
"Meanwhile, I've got a shining example going on in Laverton that shows that the program works."