Ann Drinan  

El Sistema: An afternoon with José Antonio Abreu

Ann Drinan
March 13, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

I'm sure many of you have seen the segments on CBS' 60 Minutes recently about El Sistema, Gustavo Dudamel, and José Antonio Abreu, the Founder of El Sistema. Symphony magazine did a cover story on El Sistema in their March/April 2008 issue. And the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra gave an astounding performance at Carnegie Hall in November.

Señor Abreu spoke at the National Performing Arts Conference in Denver on June 13, 2019 for all the delegates. The League of American Orchestras has some great photos and an introductory video about El Sistema that was shown at this plenary session on their website.

Later that afternoon, he addressed a session as part of the League of American Orchestra's conference. Jesse Rosen, the League's CEO, asked Señor Abreu to tell the attendees a bit about Venezuela, so that everyone could gain a greater insight into El Sistema.

His remarks were translated by Bolivio Bottome, but she seemed to be paraphrasing what he said because he was so intent on telling us so much! I was pretty much able to keep up with her translation, but what follows is definitely not a literal translation of Señor Abreu's remarks but rather my attempt at capturing the gist of what he presented.

- Ann Drinan

When Venezuela was still an undefined territory, it was one of the poorest regions of Latin America. For example, foreign commerce was limited to two ships per year. Agriculture was limited to coffee and cacao, and the population was mainly made up of rural people.

At the end of the 18th century some cities started developing, especially Caracas. Near the city lived a priest who had studied in the conservatory in Rome. Towards the end of the 18th century he brought to Venezuela the first music sheets. This was an important moment among composers in Venezuela, especially among poorer composers.

But after Venezuela attained its independence in 1830, the country had many years of civil war that made the country and the population even poorer than before. When oil appeared in 1917 the country was not prepared to receive this wealth. And an explosion of wealth occurred. At that moment the country realized how backwards it was, educationally speaking.

As a consequence, universities and colleges were created to compensate. In 1930 the first Philharmonic Orchestra of Venezuela was created with 70 foreign musicians and 10 Venezuelan musicians. Until 1975, this was the only symphony that Caracas had. Maracaibo, the 2nd largest city and the oil capital of Venezuela, had a second orchestra made up of 99% Polish musicians.

Meanwhile, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico had developed strong orchestras with national musicians. The Venezuelan economy had transformed itself in such a way that a strong industry developed and technification of the county followed.

The artistic career/occupation had no established hierarchy. At that time, youths were urged by their families to become engineers, oil engineers, lawyers, etc., but not artists. I myself had to abandon my musical studies to pursue a university career in economics. I studied from when I was 16 until I was 33; it was 1975.

Then oil prices rose from $7 to $40 per barrel and a whole new possibility of reforming the education system opened up. I left the position I had in the Ministry of Planning to return to music, but not as a performer or conductor but as a musical educator. I also renounced the traditional way of making music, which was a Latin American model that copied the European model of theoretical studies, based on 1-to-1 teaching of an instrument with no orchestra practice, which made musical studies very boring. Many youngsters simply left their musical studies. For every 100 young students, only 2 were left in the upper grades, and the only orchestra that existed had not taken charge of educating new musicians.

I was not willing to follow the educational musical program that was present then, and we started with some musician friends of mine to select some students from Caracas and other cities in February 1975. With those few kids, we started preparing a repertoire. For that I asked some music friends to prepare the musicians in the different parts they had to play; these friends were also professors of their instruments. This very informal group of teachers was already a seed for a new way of teaching music.

The school was for the orchestra, not the orchestra for the school. So in this way there was an inversion of the relation of the didactics of music, and at that moment we dared to give our first concert. It was very important for that first concert to have great impact so that some of the important figures of the country would understand the importance of art.

I didn’t want to give this concert in the concert hall but in the sight of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We invited all the diplomatic core and some ministers. At that time Mexico’s President was visiting our country. I asked to play before the formal gala dinner. When the Mexican President heard the orchestra, he commented to the Venezuela Ministry of Foreign Affairs that he wanted to invite the orchestra to play in Mexico. And that was the beginning of a journey of prestige for the orchestra.

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