Thirty-eight years ago José Antonio Abreu set out to use music as a means of effecting social change in Venezuela. Starting with just twelve children from the barrios, Abreu’s extraordinary passion and energy grew into a system of music education from which over 2,000,000 children have benefitted to date; it became known as El Sistema.
“The most miserable and tragic thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or a roof, but the feeling of being no one,” says Abreu. “The effect of El Sistema is felt in three fundamental circles: in the personal circle, in the family circle and in the community. The orchestra becomes a school of social living.”
There are currently over 400,000 children (75% of whom are under the poverty line) who are learning to play an instrument and perform in the country’s ensembles and orchestras. This year they have a new motto: “The Venezuelan children grow with music.” But it seems it is not just those from Venezuela: there are now over 100 projects in 35 countries which have adopted El Sistema approach in the hope of reaping its unique reward.
After this year’s Salzburg Festival
there may be even more. The renowned European festival will host six different Sistema ensembles over eleven concerts spanning a month, the fullest presentation of El Sistema ever seen outside of Venezuela.
“Two years ago, we had the good fortune to travel to Venezuela to see Maestro Abreu and experience El Sistema firsthand,” says the festival’s Artistic Director Alexander Pereira. “This was an overwhelming experience for us, in musical and human terms. It was our heartfelt wish to bring El Sistema to Salzburg to give [audiences] the opportunity to witness the entire breadth of this fascinating orchestral and choral education programme.”
As CEO of El Sistema, Eduardo Mendez, explains: “It´s not just about showing how many people are included and related to this project, it is about demonstrating what music can give to a child no matter what his or her background is,” he says. “We want to show through our different orchestras, our choir, our children’s orchestra and the White Hands Choir that music is reachable for everyone, every age, in any circumstance.”
It is a sign of El Sistema’s efficacy that the majority of the conductors at the residency are themselves a product of El Sistema. Gustavo Dudamel famously directs the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, which has already performed twice at Salzburg and made a worldwide name for itself. Together, they will be opening the residency with Mahler’s aptly named ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ (Symphony No. 8).
Also in the line up will be the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, another of El Sistema’s most prestigious orchestras for 14-25 year old musicians. This will be led by Christian Vásquez and Diego Matheuz, who both made their way through the orchestra’s ranks. Similarly the ‘third generation’ El Sistema ensemble, the Youth Orchestra of Caracas, will perform under fellow Sistema musician Dietrich Paredes.
The Simón Bolivar String Quartet, comprised of the four section leaders from the eponymous orchestra, and the Venezuelan Brass Ensemble will have their first appearances at the Festival, while several Sistema ensembles presented in Salzburg have never toured outside of Venezuela before. These include the National Youth Chorus, the White Hands Choir and Sinfonica Infantil (National Children’s Symphony Orchestra) comprised of the youngest players, just 9-14 years old.
The Sinfonica Infantil will be conducted by latest Sistema prodigy, 18-year-old Jesús Parra, in conjunction with Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle first encountered the orchestra on a visit to Venezuela in 2006 where they made a searing impression: “When I first conducted the Infantil Orchestra seven years ago in Caracas, I could not believe that children as young as nine could not only play all the notes, but also could make such wonderful music,” he says. “It is exhilarating and life enhancing.”
The ensemble which arguably best sums up the egalitarian ethos of El Sistema is the White Hands Choir, formed entirely of children with special needs. As Mendez says, “Music and our social inclusion policy have given these kids a chance to show, to us and to themselves, the relevance of determination. Passion for music can emerge from everyone, everywhere.”
The group is split into those with cognitive, visual or movement disorders who form the chorus, and those with impaired hearing, mute, or deaf-mute children who transform the music into an expressive choreography of hand movements. The logistics of travel and staging the event will be something of an organisational feat for those both in Salzburg and Venezuela, not to mention for these handicapped young musicians themselves, but their very presence in Salzburg underlines the importance and inclusiveness of El Sistema’s work.
And it is not just Venezuelan musicians taking to the stage. European ensembles which have seen El Sistema as their guiding force will also perform, most notably the Austrian initiative, superar, which considers itself a “musical bridge” between Western and Eastern Europe. In a meeting of musical ideals, superar choruses from Slovakia, Bosnia, Romania and Turkey will be united with the National Youth Choir of Venezuela and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in two concerts, and a superar Choral Festival day will involve 400 singers with children and teenagers from Salzburg also joining in. As well as this, Sinfonica Infantil will also give a public orchestral rehearsal with the Mozart Children’s Orchestra of the Mozarteum Foundation.
The Salzburg residency is very much about celebrating the work of El Sistema, but as well as this Salzburg hopes to create a fertile environment for exchange and debate. Beyond concerts, there will be two public symposia on music education specifically exploring the differences between Europe and Venezuela, and how El Sistema can be applied most effectively. No doubt conversation between musicians will continue both on and off stage throughout the fortnight.
“El Sistema demonstrates the extent to which music can change society in a way that is unique throughout the world. In Europe, we tend to forget the important role that singing and making music together play in the personality development of children and teenagers,” says Pereira. “ We also hope that the residency of El Sistema will support and contribute new impulses to existing initiatives – for example superar – and also inspire others to realise similar projects in other countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe.”
These events at Salzburg mark a unique moment in the history of El Sistema. Outside of their home country the Festival gives them a space for both reflection and integration while allowing their influence to penetrate further afield. As Rattle says: “This is, quite simply, the future of music. Those of you lucky enough to hear the concerts will see why.”
© Nina Large