CHICAGO — The internationally acclaimed Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela traveled to three cities in the United States this month, Washington, Chicago and Houston. And with this breath of fresh air from the South comes a new opportunity for the United States to get serious about music education.
For more than 30 years, the orchestra has transformed the lives of more than 250,000 Venezuelan children — many from impoverished circumstances — through its free-of-charge musical education, opening the doors for the youth of Venezuela to become young musicians and to perform with some of the world’s best-known orchestras, and to have the self-confidence and self-esteem to be productive citizens.
That model of education, known as El Sistema (The System), has been so successful that it is now being replicated in other countries. El Sistema has grown to be a Venezuelan-wide organization of 102 youth orchestras, 55 children’s orchestras and 270 music centers. The best musicians from these regional orchestras play in the Bolívar orchestra.
The orchestra was developed under the leadership of José Antonio Abreu, a retired economist and musician, who had a vision of creating a national system of youth orchestras in Venezuela dedicated to changing young lives through music.
Abreu, a recent recipient of the 2009 TED prize (Technology, Entertainment, Design, based in the U.S.) has one wish: to set up El Sistema programs around the world, including in the U.S.
It has achieved world renown as a highly effective vehicle for social change.
Although the orchestra program was set up two decades before Hugo Chavez was elected president, the Bolivarian Revolution — or 21st century socialism, as Chavez has called it — has helped the program to flourish.
Chavez recently called for “resetting” U.S.-Venezuelan relations, and, if the youth orchestra’s tour is part of pushing a reset button then it is one powerful button. The concerts in Houston, Chicago and Washington have been sold out for months.
Major U.S. media have been charmed by the talent of the Venezuelan young people, the possibility of what music and music education can do, and a 28-year-old phenom who has become the new face of classical music.
That 28-year-old is director Gustavo Dudamel, a protégé of Abreu’s, and the most famous example of what El Sistema has accomplished. Dudamel was recently named Los Angeles Philharmonic music director and is starting an El Sistema program for the youth of LA.
Dudamel has been called “The Dude” and the savior of classical music.
The Chicago Tribune’s music critic says Dudamel’s “outsized talent, ebullient personality and ecstatic podium manner connect with musicians and audiences in a way seldom seen since the days of the lamented Leonard Bernstein.” Which can’t hurt, the critic writes, since “a touch of show-biz imagery” can help symphony orchestras “eager to shed their fusty stereotype and fill empty seats during a prolonged economic downturn.”
Time magazine comments, “The South American country is now recognized as one of the world’s most dynamic vessels of classical music, thanks to a 34-year-old program that gives violins, French horns and batons to poor barrio kids and lets them interpret Handel and Tchaikovsky with a Latin verve that last year led Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, to declare, ‘The future of classical music lies in Venezuela.’”
Music can change lives
Besides bringing new life to a genre of music that most people think is inhabited by stuffed shirts, Dudamel and his mentor Abreu are on a mission. They know, from first-hand experience, that music can change lives.
Dudamel once talked about a friend, Lenor, who played clarinet in the Bolivar orchestra and also spent time in jail.
“Holding a clarinet,” Lenor said, “was much better than holding a gun.” Venezuela, like the U.S., has a problem of violence and guns including among young people.
Dudamel has started working with low-income children in Los Angeles on the YOLA project (Youth Orchestra LA).
“We have to build something for the future and involve our young communities, so that they can think as citizens and become part of and involved in society,” he says. “Of course, it’s wonderful that kids have the Internet, television and computer games, but it’s so important, too, that they know about culture and the arts, that they can have pleasure in reading a book, creating memories and talking to friends.”
“The System exists not to build musicians so much as to create better citizens,” Dudamel notes. “Many of our kids come from neighborhoods where there are drugs and crime, some from broken homes. But when they are playing in the orchestra, they are all the same. It is a model democracy. It sets an example of how a community can function together.”
Abreu, who embodies the democratic notion that people from the humblest backgrounds can not only appreciate but master high art, says his training as an economist helped him realize the power of investment in music.
“I was convinced,” he says, “that the way to genuinely develop a country was to develop its human capital, and that means promoting people’s talents everywhere, not just the élite.”
In an April 7 Washington meeting of the Organization of American States, Abreu introduced the orchestra’s brass ensemble, directed by Dudamel, saying, “No longer is this music the monopoly of higher classes.”
Families of the students become part of the process, as do neighbors and the whole community, Abreu says.
“They’re enchanted to see their children practicing this music at home, to see the self-esteem it gives them,” he says. “They share it with their neighbors.”
Abreu says he believes that the orchestra “can’t help but promote understanding, not just between the U.S. and Venezuela but the New World and Europe.”
Art funding in the U.S.
Such a philosophy and program from a country much poorer than the U.S. has helped artists here make the point that our government should support more arts funding, especially in the public schools.
Pop singer Linda Ronstadt recently told a congressional committee, advocating for arts funding, “Access to quality music education should not be only for those who can afford it. The benefits are too great.”
She pointed to Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s example of starting Youth Orchestra LA
“Today, children ages 7-16 in the urban core of Los Angeles receive free instruments, after-school music instruction and orchestra experience,” Ronstadt said. “Imagine what can be accomplished if we support the arts, engage ‘at risk’ youth and help them succeed in school and in their lives. For ‘underserved’ families, indeed for all families, participation in music and the arts can help people reclaim and achieve the American Dream.”
Creating jobs and more
The National Endowment for the Arts has some fresh funds from Barack Obama’s recent stimulus package to “preserve jobs in the arts.” But, from the pitiful arts funding for public schools to the cutbacks by cultural organizations hit hard by the economic recession/depression, it is clear more has to be done to rejuvenate the U.S. music and cultural scene.
U.S. orchestras of all sizes have been cutting their budgets in recent months. The Cleveland Orchestra’s music director took a 20 percent pay cut and administrative staff took cuts of various sizes. The number of subscription concerts will be reduced, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
The Minnesota Orchestra music director will make 10 percent less, and other salaries are being frozen or cut.
Orchestras in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have laid off staff.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s chief executive officer and other staff will take pay cuts now, unpaid furloughs later.
Even New York’s Metropolitan Opera has been hit. Unless it can extract cuts and concessions from its unions, general manager Peter Gelb told The New York Times, the Met faces a “disaster scenario.”
In the depths of the 1930s Great Depression, the government stepped in and created the Works Progress Administration, with a massive cultural component that spawned not only badly needed jobs but incredible works of art, architecture, music and music history, literature and parks that we enjoy to this day. Such a rebirth is possible today, and Venezuela has helped to show the way.