El Sistema At 40: What's Next?
It's hard to believe it's been 40 years since Venezuela's El Sistema drew its first breath, but it has. A new compact disc from DG celebrates this 40th anniversary with a collection of 12 tracks drawn from the extensive discography of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. The disc is titled “El Sistema 40 – A Celebration.”
El Sistema was the brainchild of economist, composer, conductor Jose Antonio Abreu. From the beginnings, in 1975, Abreu saw his project, officially called Fundacion del Estadopara el SistemaNacional de lasOrquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, as much a social program as music education. He wanted to offer disadvantaged youth the opportunity to lift themselves out of a near certain sentence of life in the slums, perhaps a life of crime, to a life of discipline and intellectual development. In the best case, these children would find themselves in a world totally different than the one they resided in before entering El Sistema.
El Sistema's goal has never been to produce professional musicians. Rather, it has instilled in the hundreds of thousands who have participated a sense of team, enabling them to acquire valuable social skills and values. Whether there were ever shaded expectations in the beginning of making a world class symphony orchestra, or not, such has been the case. The flagship Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has become a model of not only what is possible with a disciplined ensemble of 100 young musicians, but it has also toured the world, playing at major concert halls in Europe and the United States. In addition, the orchestra has made numerous recordings for international labels, including Dorian and, later, Deutsche Grammophon.
This success came slowly and methodically. The Mexican musician and conductor Eduardo Mata was a regular with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. In 1992 he made the first of several recordings with the orchestra, for the US based Dorian record label. Others followed suit, but it wasn't until 2006 that the orchestra scored big with DG. That relationship was made possible by the emergence of El Sistema alumnus Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel, still referred to by some as “the Dude,” was attracting attention as a conductor. He had begun conducting studies in 1995 and progressed steadily, winning competitions along the way. In 1999 he was appointed music director of the OrquestaSinfonica Simon Bolivar. Deutsche Grammophon identified correctly that Dudamel was a star on the rise. They signed him to their label in 2005. The following year he recorded Beethoven's "Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7" with the Simon Bolivar.
Dudamel and the orchestra continued in 2007 with Mahler's monumental "Symphony No. 5" and more recently they have committed Mahler's 7th to disc. These are not creampuffs. This is a serious repertoire and a difficult one. Frankly, I paid little attention, assuming I would be disappointed. It was better to marvel at the wonderful, mostly lighthearted materials on the orchestra's Fiesta CD. That the DG execs got it right is evidenced by the track listings on the 40th anniversary CD: El Sistema 40. Movements of Beethoven symphonies are there, along with the "Danzon No. 2" by the Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. There are also three dances from Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia." Of course, any disc offered as a celebration of the success of El Sistema must include the orchestra's full-throttled reading of "Mambo" from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story." This is how the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra burst on the scene. Who can forget the youthful exuberance of the musicians, having the greatest times of their lives, or at least selling it as so? Who are we to doubt their sincerity? The experience and discipline of El Sistema has opened doors for these musicians, and that is certainly reason to celebrate.
This compilation is the sampler it intends to be. After you hear the performances, you may go out and buy another of the 10 CDs, by my count, which the orchestra has made with Dudamel. I would encourage it. But I would also encourage you to seek out the three or four recordings made with Eduardo Mata, on the Dorian label. These are still in circulation, I believe, and more competitively priced than the full price DG discs. One flag which should be raised regarding El Sistema 40: A Celebration, is notice that this is not strictly a celebration of the Simon Bolivar Symphony. There are several tracks for string quartet, music by Dvorak and Ginastera, in fine performances by the Simon Bolivar String Quartet.
So what is the future of El Sistema? In Latin American cultures certain initiatives can become entangled with government and politics. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In the case of El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, funding seems to have always been secure. Of course, it was a lot easier to fund this program and many other social systems when Venezuela was high on oil. This made it easier for then-President Hugo Chavez to continue to pump money into El Sistema. In turn, the success of the system was such that Chavez was able to claim some of the glory for himself. This is when it began to get complicated.
When I interviewed the Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero in 2010, I asked if she had benefited from El Sistema.
Gabriela Montero: “No, that is purely an orchestral program and they are wonderful, absolutely wonderful. All of these kids, 20 year-olds, 30 year-olds in these orchestras are good friends of mine and I have a close relationship with them and with Gustavo Dudamel and Abreu. But I spent most of my life outside of Venezuela, studying, and I wasn't in touch with this program except that when I did my debut with orchestra when I was 8, I actually played the concert with Abreu conducting and with the first youth orchestra accompanying me.”
In retrospect, I now know that in 2010 she was already harboring grave reservations about the politics of Hugo Chavez. When her album, "Solatino," for the EMI label, was released, Montero was regularly mounting her soap box to voice her genuine concerns regarding Venezuela. Look closely at the cover of "Solatino" and you will notice that the EMI logo, normally red, has turned blue. This is one of the understated protests by Montero. When she speaks, there is little doubt she is deeply concerned about the socialist, some would even say Communist, leanings of Venezuela.
"Venezuela is going through a very difficult period politically and socially. I feel so connected to the country that I wanted to help to raise consciousness of it. You don't hear about 80 per cent of what's going on there. Since red represents communism and it's the color of the Venezuelan government, I wanted to make a statement that said I don't want that kind of red. I want a red that's peaceful and that belongs to all of us."
More recently, her rhetoric has become even more pointed as she recruits other Latin American artists into a campaign called SOS Venezuela!
Montero: “My name is Gabriela Montero. I've decided to record this video in English because I believe it's the international community that has to be made aware of what is happening in Venezuela. Venezuelans already know what is happening there. We are now in a dictatorship – nothing more, nothing less – we are being governed by the Cubans. Please help us in supporting Venezuela SOS concerts.”
Montero has called out those who continue to work within El Sistema. Gustavo Dudamel has been a frequent target of her criticism. She was always critical of his perceived friendship with now deceased Hugo Chavez. But now her voice has became more emphatic as Venezuela's social and political infrastructure unravels under the regime of Chavez successor, Nicola Maduro. She accuses Dudamel and Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema in 1975, of collaborating in what she believes are heavyhanded actions by the Maduro government in quelling unrest and riots throughout Venezuela. Just last month, Montero spoke her harshest criticism yet:
“When El Sistema was founded, it was a model educational project. Today it is the greatest propaganda tool of the political leadership.”
Others might disagree with the severity of Montero's assessment. Carl St. Clair is conductor of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, based in Orange County, adjacent to Los Angeles. He is also current music director of the Costa Rica Symphony. St. Clair has had an ongoing relationship with El Sistema and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra.
Carl St. Clair: “My relationship with them started in 1986 and for the next 10 or 12 years I would go once or twice a year to Caracas to conduct the orchestra and sometimes out to other cities to work with their orchestras. It was just a wonderfully incredible vision that he had and I bought into it and I supported it 100 percent. That's why I always went down and worked with their orchestras and their teachers. I've worked with some of these musicians for 10 years. My gosh, the orchestra just sounds fantastic.”
Marin Alsop is another who has praise for El Sistema. In fact, she is participant in a Brazilian spin-off and has taken a leading role in the Baltimore Symphony's ORCHKids program.
Marin Alsop: “In Baltimore we're trying to do something on the same lines as El Sistema but geared toward our own community. Five years ago we started a program called ORCHKids – Orchestra Kids – with 30 kids from the Baltimore Public School System. Today we have 600 young people and these kids, five years ago, never dreamt they would play the violin, or the trombone, and so they now see the world opening up to them in terms of possiblity. They can envision doing for themselves things which they could never envision before. They learn motivation. They learn time management. They learn discipline. They learn how to work with each other. They have extended families through these ensembles and these orchestras. They learn about mutual respect and, most importantly, they learn that it's important to be part of a society, a larger society, and what their individual roles are.”
Study after study has shown the value of music and arts education in our schools. Yet these programs seem always under attack as budgets expand and contract, and as more emphasis is placed on testing as a means of measuring the success or failure of our educational systems. Marin Alsop speaks often of Brazil's societal belief that music not only improves quality of life, but also promotes improved social behavior. She even dares to believe these Utopian dreams might still be within our reach. Let's take stock of where we stand. Forty years of El Sistema has more to show than just 12 tracks of musical celebration. There have been some fundamental adjustments to societal ills of a third world country, Venezuela. These adjustments have not come without a price tag, nor have they come without missteps. Gabriela Montero is right to point out the flaws, but we must take care that in forcing change in the Venezuelan government and economy we don't also derail El Sistema. Let's hope the conflicts can be resolved, that problems within El Sistema can be flushed out, that the system can be made to work again as an engine for social change. Let's hope 10 years from now we are celebrating El Sistema 50 and that the many copycats of El Sistema around the world are going strong, promoting social change while lifting the human spirit with music, glorious music.