Miracula: Jose Antonio Abreu and El Sistema

Jose Anton

By Rob Tomaro,  Classical Music Editor for Cashbox Magazine

Once upon a time, in 1975, far away in the impoverished land of Venezuela, there was a strange little man who had a crazy idea.  He thought if he could create a national network of student orchestras, it might prevent thousands of kids from falling into a desperate cycle of gangs and drugs.  Replace the needle with the flute.  Replace the spray painted gang signs with pages out of Mozart. Did he just fall out of the sky, this mooncalf?   Was he as loopy as Baron Von Munchausen, this naïf? Thing is, he did it.

His name is Jose Antonio Abreu (pictured right).  He is an economist and amateur musician.

His El Sistema now has 125 youth orchestras, 30 full symphony orchestras and 250,000 kids enrolled in its programs. Its wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel has just been appointed Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Prior to this, he has appeared on the podiums of all the major symphonies of the world.

Near the end of a documentary film about the program called Tochar y Luchar (To Play and Fight), Maestro Dudamel (above, left) is leading the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in a blistering performance of Bernstein's "Mambo" from West Side Story.   As the piece gains momentum, little groups of musicians in various sections of the orchestra begin to leap out of their seats and dance around their chairs as they play.

Cute.  But it's more than that.  I'd be the first to decry arrant showboating:  "If you can't play, you might as well get out the bells and whistles."   But not here. You see it and you feel like the dancing is an organic rush coming out of the passion in the music, not some gimmick laid on top of it to distract the audience from a substandard performance.  It seems right.  It seems joyous.  Believe me, when you see the film, when you see what those kids had to go through to wind up on that stage, you'll feel like dancing, too.

El Sistema began to achieve international acclaim when they performed at a Scottish music festival in 1977.   They blew everything else out of the water.  Shortly thereafter, the British government appointed Julian Lloyd Webber Director of "In Harmony", a new music education program, given three million pounds, and told to replicate El Sistema in the U.K.

On June 6, 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank granted El Sistema a $150 million dollar loan to build seven regional centers throughout Venezuela.

Two million young people have gone through the program.  School attendance has improved dramatically.   Juvenile delinquency is in decline.  Before issuing the loan, the bank calculated that every dollar invested in sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.

So, if it can happen there, with no resources and against all odds, boy, it can happen anywhere, even here.

El Sistema Venezuela
Tochar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight)
El Sistema New York
About El Sistema:
For Sistema Scotland where "CHILDREN ARE NEVER EVER TURNED AWAY.:"
http://www.new.facebook.com/group.php?gid=28264327342 - /pages/Sistema-Scotland/80911127291?ref=mf
For more about Maestro Abreu:

El Sistema: The most inclusive music-education system in the world
Special Education including deaf children:

El Sistema: Juvenile detention programme:
Sistema Scotland leadership in Caracas:
Sistema Birmingham, Alabama: