The 2013 Honorees

By Clemency Burton-Hill

With musical ambition, economic pragmatism, and political acumen, he created a unique social action project that has made a generation of citizens veritable pillars of society: Venezuela’s musical miracle, El Sistema.

As radical South American revolutionaries go, José Antonio Abreu is not your average candidate. Gentle, diminutive, and softly spoken, he works in an office in a distinctly unremarkable high-rise in downtown Caracas known as Parque Centrale. But as I am escorted—in broad daylight, by three armed  bodyguards—to meet this frail-looking septuagenarian, the astonishing vision of the music-education experiment he launched in 1975, widely known as “El Sistema,” really hits home. Venezuela is  statistically the world’s most dangerous country. A place where 53 people, on average, are murdered per day. Where drugs, gangs, violence, and prostitution are rife in the many deprived barrios. And where most kids do not make it through high school, let alone college.

Venezuela is also the country where, before Abreu took a quantum leap of faith almost four decades ago, a young person graduating from the music conservatory might feel he had no option but to tip gasoline over his instrument and set fire to it in despair—as a young bassoonist famously did in the early 1970s, wondering aloud “Why not? I will never be able to play this bassoon in a symphony orchestra in my country!”

Today, when musicians as eminent as Simon Rattle are declaring that “the future of classical music lies in Venezuela,” and there are myriad musical opportunities for bassoonists and beyond, it is tempting to look at the sweeping success of El Sistema and the analogous educational initiatives it has inspired around the world and assume that the pre-conditions in 1970s Venezuela must somehow have been ripe to create such a movement. But this is far from the case, as Abreu explains. “The idea came from the panoramic scene here in which musical education did not include any orchestral practice for young people and children. For this reason, there was only one symphony orchestra for the entire country.”

The courage and conviction it must therefore have required of Abreu, who famously held El Sistema’s first “orchestral” rehearsal in a garage with just 11 kids, is all the more remarkable given the tradition out of which it emerged. He is too humble to say it out loud, but the point is clear: El Sistema was in no way inevitable. And it is perhaps this lack of inevitability, above all, that gives fellow educators and visionaries across the world—from the U.S. to India, Korea to Scotland, Jamaica to Australia—such hope.

Born in Velera, Trujillo, and raised in Barquisimeto, the future birthplace of Gustavo Dudamel, José Antonio Abreu began his piano studies at age 9 with a local Franciscan nun named Doralisa Jiménez de Medina. By the time he was 25 he held a Ph.D in petroleum economics and a degree in composition and organ performance from the music conservatory. During the same period, in the late 1960s, that he was winning Venezuela’s Symphonic Music National Prize, he was simultaneously boosting his academic credentials with more postgraduate economics studies in the United States and carving out an impressive career in the political arena, serving in the Venezuelan Congress as one of its youngest deputies.

This combination of musical ambition, economic pragmatism, and political acumen has always characterized the way in which Abreu has gone about creating and cultivating “Venezuela’s musical miracle ”—which , he is quick to point out, is not a musical project at all, but a social action project. That he has convinced seven successive Venezuelan governments running the gamut of the political spectrum to support El Sistema so richly is remarkable; that the money has always come from the Social Services department rather than the Culture purse is proof of his political genius. And such support has been roundly vindicated. “Children engaged in the program attain above-average results in school, are four times more likely to graduate, and show a tremendous capacity for collective community action,” Abreu points out. “So the fundamental element that has determined support has been the results El Sistema has proved in the social field. For Venezuelans, music education is now a  constitutional  and legal right.” Indeed, campaigners in October’s 2012 presidential election were apparently repeatedly asked by prospective voters: “And what are you planning to do for our symphony orchestras?”

For Abreu, whose entire professional life has been dedicated to what he calls this “human development project,” is an educator not just of Venezuelan music students, but of Venezuelan parents who have never picked up an instrument in their lives; never previously heard a single note of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Bernstein. He is an educator not just of the conductor who now happens to be the hottest young maestro on the planet, but of mightily experienced American and European orchestral executives who were in the business years before Gustavo was even a twinkle in Oscar and Solangel Dudamel’s eyes. He is an educator not just of music teachers, but of politicians, diplomats, academics, and community leaders. In Venezuela circa 2012, it is impossible not to be struck by those of Dudamel’s El Sistema generation who are no longer practicing musicians, but administrators, teachers, doctors, lawyers, civil servants, architects—in short, veritable pillars of society. With 80 percent of El Sistema’s students always having hailed from low-income backgrounds, how many of those young men and women would have realized this potential had it not been for their music lessons, their daily orchestral practice, their many concerts, and the discipline, dignity, and self-belief that arose through their participation in Abreu’s extraordinary humanistic project?

El Sistema represents education in the widest possible sense, and Abreu, at 74, is still lit from within by the fire of its possibility. Today there may be thousands of kids inspired to learn classical music across the globe and almost half a million children engaged in El Sistema programs in Venezuela alone, but this is just the very beginning. Abreu reminds me that 33 percent of Venezuela’s 30 million population is under 14, and  I get the sense that he will not rest until every one of those children have access to a local núcleo music school. “We know that the efforts we put into it are not enough, given the size of the challenge ahead,” he smiles, graciously. “But this is our dream. And we will keep fighting for it, every day.” 

Clemency Burton-Hill is a journalist, television and radio broadcaster, and musician. Host of the BBC’s Radio 3 Breakfast, Proms, Young Musician of the Year, and The Culture Show, she writes about music and the arts for publications including the FT Weekend, The Guardian, and The Independent.




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