Venezuela, with its current acute economic and political problems, is scarcely a country to be imitated or envied. Yet over the last forty years, through a succession of often controversial political regimes, it has become widely known for a highly developed system of orchestras and socially directed musical education that is now being adapted and much imitated. El Sistema, as the program is known, is the brainchild of an inspirational Venezuelan musician, economist, and politician, José Antonio Abreu, who has pursued with single-minded dedication the quixotic idea that his nation’s people could be reinvigorated through a mass movement of orchestral music-making.
El Sistema describes itself as “an intensive youth music program that seeks to effect social change through the ambitious pursuit of musical excellence.” The carefully chosen words demonstrate a subtle balance within the project’s aims. The program was in its origins funded almost entirely by the Venezuelan state as a social initiative, though it now benefits from significant corporate support. It has built a large headquarters in Caracas, and over four hundred community music centers, or núcleos, throughout Venezuela. Each of these offers free after-school music education—four hours a day in the afternoon as standard, six days a week—to an estimated 500,000 students. The núcleos may be located in spaces that happen to be available—unused classrooms or rented houses. The program welcomes all participants, and does not require any form of audition to join. Many núcleos are led by musicians who once took part in the program as children.
When it began, around 1975, the project did not start from scratch. It necessarily drew on teenage musicians who already could play their instruments; they were inspired by Abreu to work together to form an orchestra. The idealistic and semipolitical nature of this project, and its subsequent international impact, have led to an increasingly contested view of its origins and development. Reconstructing the early years of El Sistema is difficult because most of the records of the movement have described it with unqualified admiration, under such titles as Venezuela Bursting with Orchestras by Chefi Borzacchini or the more recent Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall.1
These accounts have been so positive that it is hardly surprising that there are now contrasting accounts that aim to act as a corrective. It is unfortunate, however, that Geoffrey Baker’s book, El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, does not attempt such a balancing or nuanced judgment. Instead Baker tries to redress the imbalance by giving a wholly unfavorable critical account, questioning the motives and the methods of Abreu and his entire system, in particular “the idea of the orchestra as a powerful tool for social inclusion.” It is accusatory in tone, and in the end deeply unconvincing, but it raises some important issues.
From what can be discovered about the origins of El Sistema, it is clear that it was not in its beginnings the wide-ranging social and educational project it eventually became, but was strongly focused on orchestral training. Abreu is described by Baker as a “conductor, keyboard player, music educator; economist, politician, man of letters.” Born in 1939 in Valera, Venezuela, his grandparents were Italian immigrants, and both were deeply musical. His grandfather founded in Trujillo, where they had settled, a band that still exists today, and his grandmother was an accomplished musician who knew the great Verdi operas by heart. Abreu remembered staying with his grandmother as a young child and returning home determined to study music, a decision supported by his parents, who were themselves amateur musicians.
In 1957 he moved to Caracas to study keyboard and composition at the conservatory; while there he also studied economics at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, and got his first job in politics at the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the economic policy division. After graduating, he was elected to the Venezuelan Congress, where he was active during the mid-1960s. He continued to work for the Venezuelan government until 1973, when surgery forced him to take a year of convalescence. Music had always been a part of his life—he had appeared as a guest conductor and regularly gave recitals—and during this year off, while visiting the US, he observed American methods of orchestral practice and musical education, which seemed to have a decisive influence on him in suggesting the potential of his native country.
When he returned to Venezuela in 1974, Abreu felt he had an opportunity to use his knowledge and experience to help Venezuelan musicians. By his own account, in the mid-1970s he was dissatisfied with the opportunities offered by the country’s two symphony orchestras—made up of mainly European and North American players—to provide work for young native musicians. To address this problem, he decided to found a youth orchestra. This ensemble had its now legendary origins in a rehearsal for eleven teenagers who met Abreu in an underground garage in Caracas on February 12, 1975. The group reportedly grew to twenty-five for the next rehearsal and forty-six the time after, reaching seventy-five musicians within a month.
Tunstall, in Changing Lives, writes that this first group had no budget and no institutional affiliation, but that young players from local music schools were drawn to take part in it because it was a youth group that was “an all-Venezuelan orchestra in a culture where orchestral players were, almost by definition, non-Venezuelan.” Baker, in his book, questions aspects of this account and points out that Abreu’s work did not happen in isolation. He writes that “there were other youth orchestra projects at the time, in particular the Orquestra Experimental de la Orquestra Sinfónica de Venezuela…. There were also existing youth orchestras in Carora and Trujillo.” This is true, but it was Abreu’s project, with its intense direction and his single-minded perseverance, that attracted widespread attention.
Abreu kept his venture visible through constant public performances that eventually won the attention of prominent figures in the musical world as well as government officials. Less than a year after its foundation, Abreu took what was then called the Orquesta Nacional Juvenil de Venezuela to the annual International Festival of Youth Orchestras in Aberdeen, Scotland—the first-ever representatives from South America—where it had an instant success. Several of its players were chosen as members of a combined festival orchestra that performed in London, including its concertmaster, Frank Di Polo, who had previously been one of the few native players in the professional Venezuela Symphony Orchestra. He became one of Abreu’s earliest allies.
Tunstall reports that it was because of this success that offers of financial support were received from Venezuela’s government, which saw the group as a means of promoting Venezuelan culture abroad; Abreu accepted the offer of funding, and used the money he received from the government to open El Sistema’s first núcleos. Baker, however, suggests that this first youth orchestra in 1976 was successful only because Abreu “took musicians from existing music schools…seduced [a typical Baker innuendo] by the promise of money, tours, publicity, and, above all, rapid success.” He cites in support of this an “older musician” who remembered that Abreu had at the time secured money from an institution ultimately funded by the Venezuelan Ministry of Higher Education, as if this were in some way a suspect activity.
Abreu himself, quoted by Tunstall, was clear and open in his appeal to the then president, Carlos Andres Perez:
I told him that I needed the state to take financial responsibility for the orchestra, to consider it a state project. Most important, I told him I needed support not as an artistic project, but as a program of youth development through music. There was a Ministry of Youth at the time, and I knew that was the ideal place for us.
For thirty years, Abreu received support from Venezuela’s successive social democratic governments, and it was in large part because of his relationships with those governments that the movement flourished. According to Baker, the composer René Rojas said of Abreu that “when there are changes of government or cabinet, the first thing he does is offer up a concert to the new leading figures.” (He would not be the first artist in history to do so in the search for patronage.) When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Abreu won his backing by emphasizing that El Sistema was a social project that should appeal to Chávez’s socialist regime. All this is presented by Baker as if it had a whiff of corruption about it: it was, however, entirely consonant with Abreu’s efforts to sustain the basic vision of El Sistema.
Not surprisingly, there was opposition to the new methods that Abreu preached from the conventional institutions of music education and orchestral training, especially because of the high level of financial support given him. Abreu was able to develop the movement as fast as he did because the Venezuelan education system left young people with free time in the afternoons and evenings, which could be spent in the núcleos. Training new leaders as he worked, he created a model of orchestral development that could be replicated. It had the advantage of fostering learning in groups, in contrast with the single-lesson, solitary practice model of the conservatories.
The English violinist Marshall Marcus, who arrived in Caracas in 1979 as concertmaster of a new Venezuelan orchestra not connected to El Sistema, has described how after a few weeks Abreu asked him to teach and coach fourteen-to-eighteen-year-olds in what was then called El Juvenil. Baker implies that the students were mainly from well-off families, a suggestion Marcus strongly refutes: “[They were] from very different backgrounds.… These are not well-behaved middle-class children.”2
While Abreu has been praised for identifying and developing talent, he has also been criticized for passing over those of less talent. Marcus has described the intense but very positive competitiveness that he witnessed in the selection process for the National Children’s Orchestra—a nationwide orchestra that students from all núcleos could audition for—as increasing the commitment of the players. He adds that these national orchestras were very much the exception, and many students did not audition for them; he thought that those who remained in the núcleos gained hugely from the experience.
Baker uses these developments to imply that Abreu is ruthless. In 1999, Abreu replaced one of his longest-serving colleagues, Gustavo Medina, as conductor of the National Children’s Orchestra, a move that was much criticized, leading to public criticism from Medina. But the replacement was the charismatic and hugely talented Gustavo Dudamel, one of the most successful products of El Sistema, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a leading advocate of music education for all. It is difficult to argue that Abreu chose wrongly.
The peak of the artistically excellent and internationally visible activity of El Sistema has been the creation of orchestras named after Simón Bolívar. The late-teenagers who formed the original Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra went on to become teachers and coaches of a second orchestra that eventually formed the basis of the now widely known Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra. Under Dudamel’s direction this is the orchestra that has made El Sistema famous around the world. Once a youth orchestra, it has retained many of the same players and has now grown into a fully professional ensemble with a touring and performance schedule to rival others, appearing at leading music festivals, producing videos and CDs that are sold alongside those of the world’s great orchestras. How that orchestra now distinguishes itself from others, and develops in the future, is a major strategic question for El Sistema that Baker does not consider deeply enough.
Abreu always emphasizes that the orchestra’s international success was part of the much wider activity in Venezuela: “From the beginning I saw the orchestras as the most beautiful expression of a united country. I saw a vibrant Venezuela, full of the will and energy to achieve what it wanted.” As regimes changed, he played into the prevailing political mood, and the rhetoric of the movement shifted from encouraging music as a benefit in itself to a proclamation of the social good it had done. In an article from 2012, the Italian scholar Maria Majno describes how El Sistema became an “alternative offer that could be more attractive than gangs, drug-dealing and violence.”
With the extension of the program into the youngest generation, there are now (according to El Sistema’s website) children participating who start as young as two or three and continue into their teens. Beginning with the most basic concepts of rhythm, they then progress to choral work and either the recorder or percussion at five, and at seven are allowed to choose their first string or wind instrument, which is usually provided by El Sistema. The program places a strong emphasis on ensemble performance: the youngest players learn technical proficiency on their instruments by practicing together with older, more experienced students, while older students also teach workshops in which the younger students participate. Increasingly, as the project has spread more widely, there are specialist groups: orchestras of special needs children, young ensembles, choral groups.
Abreu’s closeness to successive governments in Venezuela became a prominent issue in 2013 with his rapid change of allegiance from Chávez to the new administration of Nicolás Maduro, who promised to continue support for El Sistema. Some argue that the ideals of the movement have become compromised by its support of the Maduro government during a time of political upheaval, partly caused by the collapse in the price of oil, which accounts for 95 percent of the country’s exports. Musicians, notably the pianist Gabriela Montero, have criticized the leaders of El Sistema for not taking positions independent of the government. Most recently, violence has disrupted the El Sistema program; it is reported that two of its teenage students have been killed, one in a burglary, one caught up in a street shooting.3 This is indeed a critical moment for the future of El Sistema, particularly in view of Abreu’s current ill-health.
Baker claims to have started his study from a positive position. He is an academic in London who has studied music in South America: he dates his involvement with the subject to the BBC Proms concert in August 2007 that brought the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra to London for the first time. He describes the concert as “electrifying,” and says that he left it “exhilarated.” As that concert took place while I was director of the BBC Proms, I can hardly claim to be a disinterested bystander, but I think it is still worth asking what it was about that remarkable event that led a critic quoted by Baker to ask, “Was this the greatest Prom of all time?” because Baker nowhere attempts to address the real musical character of the phenomenon he is writing about. There was in all the orchestra’s playing that night a physical passion, freedom, and exuberance, an overwhelming depth of commitment and energy, that immediately marked it out as exceptional. This was demonstrated not only in the music by Leonard Bernstein and by South American composers performed in the second half of the program, but also in the breathtakingly forceful account of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony in the first half, led by Dudamel’s incisive conducting.
When they reached the several encores that are still accessible on YouTube, described as “dizzying” by Alex Ross of The New Yorker, they put on jackets of the Venezuelan national colors, and the (doubtless well-drilled) choreography of their movements and extroverted dancing had a galvanizing effect on the huge audience. This was clearly a different sort of ensemble that seemed to represent a youthful ideal of how the orchestra could be reinvented.
During the 2013 Salzburg Festival, which hosted an extensive presentation of El Sistema groups (being developed with a presentation of several Sistema orchestras at La Scala Milan this August and September, under conductors Riccardo Chailly, Gustavo Dudamel, and others), the pianist Alfred Brendel witnessed a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony by the nine-to-thirteen-year-old musicians of the National Venezuelan Children’s Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. He described it as “one of the most affecting performances I have witnessed in Salzburg in half a century…from my sceptical corner, I look at the Venezuelan miracle with amazement…. Has the power of music ever generated such comprehensive social benefit?”4
The exhilaration Baker felt in 2007 clearly did not last; his investigations have made him deeply suspicious of the processes that have created the system. He pays occasional lip service to the fact that “El Sistema’s achievements are impressive…. It has…provided work for many musicians, and opened up classical music to many more people,” but we have to wait until page 308 for this brief acknowledgment. Baker visited Venezuela to write his book and talked to many who had participated in the program; but it is puzzling that, as he admits, he did not attempt to speak to Abreu at any point during his research; he often relies instead on the comments of unnamed critics who were apparently unwilling to identify themselves. Even Abreu’s quoted remarks are frequently secondhand rather than drawn from his own statements. This is a dubious scholarly method: there may well be significant questions to be asked about El Sistema; but these are clouded and compromised here by Baker’s disregard for any rigorous method of presenting his research.
Baker’s actual experience of the work of El Sistema in Caracas seems to have been limited to a single day of its activities. His encounters with other núcleos are so unspecific that he invents a fictional city, “Veracruz,” as the source of his information to “bolster the anonymization of research informants.” This creates a regrettable pattern of unsourced innuendo throughout the book.
Some significant aspects of El Sistema would benefit from further investigation. The evaluation of its impact has arguably been limited, by European and North American standards, and should be undertaken more rigorously. A questionable aspect of the Venezuelan approach is the extent to which its musical repertory is rooted in the Western classical tradition. When Abreu talks about his own musical enthusiasms he begins with Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Wagner, and Bruckner. Only later does he refer to Venezuelan and Latin American folk music, and to contemporary works. This provides the grounding for the ensemble work by which Abreu’s concept of the orchestra is developed. The reassuring conclusion—that young people can still be drawn to Beethoven—can be taken as welcome validation of the traditional values of Western cultural life, and has thus doubtless helped to gain international acceptance of the movement.
Baker questions what he calls El Sistema’s “orthodox, time-honored cultural assumptions like the universality of European art music and its civilizing effect on the masses.” But the target needs to be more precise. Baker is unclear whether it is the music itself, the institutions that promote it, or only the way it is learned that he finds questionable. El Sistema’s pedagogical principles clearly express the virtues of discipline and ensemble, repeating material, keeping faithfully to the score and the written notes in a search for perfection. For Abreu, and therefore for his followers, that fierce discipline and intense preparation of the young musicians is a productive, admirable exercise; to his opponents it can seem oppressive and controlling. Baker, for example, claims that “El Sistema’s learning process…foregrounds certain aesthetic and social values, such as uniformity, hierarchy, and obedience, and downplays others…, such as creativity, freedom, exploration, and play.” But that view is certainly not borne out when one encounters the best of their extroverted, playful, exploratory performances.
Increasingly, over recent decades, priorities other than rigorous faithfulness to a written score have emerged in young people’s music-making: creation, improvisation, the use of nonclassical sources, and the breaking down of barriers between classical music and other genres are all reflected in the increasingly mixed backgrounds and disciplines from which these musicians emerge. Baker’s judgment is that El Sistema “is, in its original form, a conservative or even regressive program.” If he were to develop ideas about orchestral practice suggesting the need for players to be involved in composition and improvisation as well as teaching and performing, that could be a fruitful reflection on El Sistema’s methods. Instead Baker somewhat undermines his case by trying to demolish the entire structure of orchestral performance going back to Lully in the seventeenth century. For him, being a player in an orchestra is simply being told what to do by someone else, and that is unacceptable.
For this argument, Baker draws on such dubious sources as Blair Tindall’s trashy memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2005) in order to criticize the pervading structures of orchestral life. The essentially collaborative nature of so much orchestral music-making is something he fails, or does not wish, to recognize. The idea of voluntary association underlay the formation of many orchestras in the nineteenth century, as Baker himself mentions, and it is a crude misrepresentation to state categorically that “the essence of an orchestra is to obey, not to agree.” Only through musical agreement are the best performances realized—as anyone will testify who has witnessed musical performances where there is lack of agreement.
Orchestras have been reworking their practices and processes, meeting the needs and aspirations of players in new ways—including, most relevantly, involving them in decision-making, artistic feedback, and the educational work with young people that every ensemble now embraces as a central part of its mission. The orchestra is indeed a venerable organism, a fact that Baker continually seems to resent, and has been subject to huge economic challenges as patterns of arts education, audience attendance, and cultural consumption shift. But the institution has proved extraordinarily resilient and flexible.
What would be regrettable is if the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and the products of El Sistema, in their search for excellence and impact, became part of an unquestioning establishment. This is an issue that faces any successful artistic revolutionary movement at some point: formed in fierce opposition to the mainstream, such ventures then gradually become part of it, as has happened, for example, with musical minimalism or the early music movement. The Bolívar’s increasing espousal of the large-scale Central European repertory to the exclusion of its native music, and its recent adoption of white-tie-and-tails convention for touring performances of Wagner and Tchaikovsky in Europe’s leading concert halls, both suggest a conventionality that is not the spirit in which El Sistema was conceived.
What El Sistema has fermented is widespread debate, far beyond Venezuela, over music education and participation in the arts, its aims and its rewards. (A comprehensive review of the literature can be found at www.sistemaglobal.com.) It has brought a renewed love of music to a great many people, and an involvement in music-making to many hundreds of thousands who would not otherwise have had the opportunity. For this it deserves a better, subtler investigation than Baker’s tendentious book, yet even his inadequate work is a contribution to that debate and deserves attention.
The case for fostering and supporting creativity as a core element in education, and thus developing more engaged, more responsible citizens, is overwhelming, unarguable, and elemental. As the novelist Jeanette Winterson, writing in the London Guardian this February, put it: “Every child ever born wants to paint a picture, dance, sing, hear a story, build a kingdom out of pots and pans.” In single-mindedly pursuing the aim of unlocking musical creativity in young people, El Sistema, whatever its defects, has not been wrong: it has improved the world.
Chefi Borzacchini, Venezuela Bursting with Orchestras: The System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela (Caracas: Banco del Caribe, 2005); Tricia Tunstall, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music (Norton, 2012). ↩
Marshall Marcus, “From Street to Stage,” The Guardian, April 4, 2009. ↩
See Mark Swed’s thoughtful article “Gustavo Dudamel, Gabriela Montero Sound 2 Different Notes on Venezuela,” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2015. ↩
Alfred Brendel, Music, Sense and Nonsense (London: Robson, 2015). ↩