Venezuela's El Sistema comes to Chicago
Dudamel leads Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
Classical music’s big YouTube moment of 2007 came during a rare BBC Proms performance. The boyish Gustavo Dudamel conducted his homeland’s Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar—clad in Venezuelan stripes of yellow, blue and red—bursting feverishly into Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story. Violinists tossed their instruments into the air, while percussionists succumbed to fits of laughter. Symphonic music was fresh, foreign and alive, and more than half a million clicked to watch. An appearance on 60 Minutes followed. Here was an amateur orchestra composed of teenagers with a record deal on Deutsche Grammophon, long the home of the world’s elite professionals.
This week, the pride of Caracas comes to Orchestra Hall as part of a three-day residency during the Chicago Festival of Youth in Music. A performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on Friday 10 precedes a workshop led by Dudamel on Saturday 11.
The man behind Dudamel’s rise is a 69-year-old economist and musician named José Antonio Abreu. In 1975, the pianist founded El Sistema, a government-funded program that offers free musical education to disadvantaged Venezuelan kids through graduation. The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar plucks El Sistema’s best talent, becoming its most visible ambassador.
Getting Abreu on the phone was no easy feat thanks to phone-connection problems and scheduling conflicts. After several days of failed calls to Venezuela, we finally got a response from Abreu via e-mail. “The main goal of El Sistema is not to create professional musicians; it is to rescue children,” he writes. Of the 250,000 kids who currently attend the music program—about 1 percent of Venezuela’s entire population—more than 90 percent come from low-income backgrounds. For a country that sees over half of its citizens living in squalor, social action is a must. Thirty-four years after its start, with “the system” more popular than ever, Abreu avows that enrollment eventually will balloon to a million—an almost unthinkable number.
El Sistema’s toddlers start at age two; by six, they’re ready to play in any one of the 220 youth orchestras. (If that conjures up images of forced-labor sweatshops, keep in mind that the program isn’t mandatory.)
Journalists around the world have raved about the system, yet no amount of critical flattery can quite compare to imitation. In a Chicago Tribune article last month, Angie Leventis Lourgos reported that some local Chicago schools are chucking the old one-on-one, mentor-to-student Western methods and adopting the collective Venezuelan way. By being thrown into a group at a young age, kids naturally rise to the standards of their peers. Dudamel’s future home, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is partnering with eight youth orchestras, entirely influenced by the successes of El Sistema.
Naturally, the difference is funding. The Venezuelan program receives about $80 million a year, mostly from its government. Still, there’s always the need for more instruments or an addition to its staff of 15,000 paid teachers.
Not surprisingly, Abreu left one of our questions unanswered: Is there a potential conflict in having an arts program rely on the generosity of political leaders? In Abreu’s defense, why bite the hand that’s fed so many mouths? For all of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s rancorous nationalist rhetoric, we might remember Abreu has kept the system flourishing through eight separate governments. El Sistema lives on because the people want it to. As that model begins to make inroads here, America’s inner-city musical education may be in for a makeover.
Visit cso.org for a complete listing of the Chicago Festival of Youth in Music.
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