Those of us who were proud of our every achievement – especially in the arts – will surely be instantly humbled at the thought of the achievements of José Antonio Abreu. The real extent of his contribution to music and the Venezuelan society at large may be difficult to fully unearth and although Mr. Abreu and El Sistema, the organization he founded, did not escape criticism – some of it severe – the extent of change it brought to millions of Venezuelans and countless more across the world is incalculable.
The recent obituary written by Barry Millington for The Guardian of April 5th 2018 sums it up best:
“The Venezuelan music educator José Antonio Abreu, who has died aged 78, was the founder of the programme known as El Sistema (The System) that changed the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow citizens, but that latterly attracted accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
“El Sistema came into being in 1975 in a Caracas car park, where Abreu held his first rehearsal with 11 young Venezuelan musicians. The educational programme he developed was based on a national system of local music centres – and within a decade there were hundreds of them. Abreu’s system differed from traditional methods in being aimed primarily at developing collaborative skills among musicians: from the start they were encouraged to play together and soon perform in one of the many orchestras that mushroomed in Venezuela.
“Tuition was rigorous, with 24 hours’ ensemble instruction per week the norm; total commitment to the project was demanded. Abreu himself, known as El Maestro or simply JAA, was a man of monastic habits, spurning leisure or holidays in pursuit of his goal: to bring music to as many children as possible. His methods were sometimes criticised as hierarchical, even tyrannical, involving repetitive rather than creative procedures, but they undoubtedly produced several generations of accomplished musicians in Venezuela. He was also a shrewd operator, securing the backing of one government after another, irrespective of its political colour.
“Well before Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Abreu effected a fundamental shift in policy. No longer was El Sistema purely about nurturing orchestral musicians; it now became an instrument of social melioration. Offering a way out of destitution and deprivation, the programme spread into the barrios – slums ruled by gang violence and drug dealing. Then, in the early years of the new century, El Sistema burst unexpectedly on to the international scene, with an exceptionally talented alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, appointed artistic director of the Simón Bolívar Youth (now Symphony) Orchestra in 1999, now in charge.
“Under the charismatic Dudamel, the orchestra made its BBC Proms debut in 2007 to enthusiastic acclaim. Dressed in jackets the bright colours of the Venezuelan flag, which they hurled into the delirious crowd at the conclusion, the youngsters exuded the joy of music-making. They made several further appearances in future years, also with artists of the stature of Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle.
“So successful was El Sistema in transforming the lives of disadvantaged young Venezuelans that similar projects were initiated elsewhere. In England the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber founded the In Harmony programme which, with Arts Council England support, has delivered educational projects to Lambeth, Liverpool and elsewhere. Sistema England, a charity chaired by Lloyd Webber, supports similar projects across the country.
“Richard Holloway’s Big Noise project, aiming to develop “confidence, discipline, teamwork, pride and aspiration” in its participants drawn from some of the most deprived communities in Scotland, currently runs projects for some 2,000 children in Raploch (Stirling), Govanhill (Glasgow) and Torry (Aberdeen) under the aegis of Sistema Scotland. El Sistema has also cooperated in exchange programmes with Canada, Spain, the US and other Latin American countries.
“Born in the small Andean city of Valera, José Antonio was the eldest of six children of musical parents, Melpómene Abreu and his wife, Ailie Anselmi. From 1957, he studied in Caracas as a pianist, harpsichordist, organist, conductor and composer, and then graduated in economics from the Andrés Bello Catholic University, teaching economics there and at Simón Bolívar University during the 1960s and 70s.
“In 1963 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela. He returned to politics in 1988 as minister of culture and president of the National Council of Culture, posts he held until 1993 and 1994 respectively.
“In 1993, El Sistema was awarded the IMC–Unesco International Music prize in the institution category, while Abreu’s many personal awards included the Polar music prize given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in 2009 and the Erasmus prize in 2010.
“In recent years there has been stringent criticism of Abreu and El Sistema, as well as of Dudamel and others, for failing to denounce the administration of Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, which has continued to support the project. More than 800,000 individuals are currently enrolled in El Sistema, according to official figures.
“Geoff Baker’s book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth (2014) detailed allegations of financial irregularities and sexual abuse by teachers, as well as nepotism and corruption by Abreu and his colleagues. Baker also argued that the project had chiefly benefited musicians from the middle levels of society rather than those from the most deprived families. The latter charge has yet to be proved or refuted definitively, but the testimony of countless individuals, both students and their parents, who believe that El Sistema has offered them a way out of abject poverty, is not easily discounted.
“Nor can it be denied that the ideals of the project – however tarnished the latter may have been by disreputable conduct – have inspired emulation across the world.
“Abreu is survived by a brother, Jesús.
“José Antonio Abreu Anselmi, music educator and director of youth orchestras, born 7 May 1939; died 24 March 2018”