The Triumph of a Musical Adventure

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times/Redux
José Antonio Abreu, Gustavo Dudamel, and Deborah Borda of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with an orchestra of children trained by El Sistema, Caracas, Venezuela, February 2012

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…

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