MAESTRO JOSE ANTONIO ABREU
A few summers ago, someone – I wish I could remember who – sent me a link to a video on YouTube. On my little laptop screen, I watched a young Venezuelan conductor named Gustavo Dudamel conduct an even younger Venezuelan orchestra in an encore at the London Proms earlier that month.
They played the Mambo from the Broadway musical West Side Story, composed by my father, Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990.
What I saw on that little laptop screen thrilled me to my core. It made me shout and laugh out loud, made tears spring from my eyes – and it also inspired me to forward that YouTube link to every single person on my e-mail address list.
It was those kids in that orchestra. Yes, their conductor was clearly a phenomenon. But it was those kids. The degree of commitment, group spirit and pure joy that radiated from all of them was something I’d never quite seen before in an orchestra – and I knew the minute I witnessed it that this was the very same energy that had poured out of my father when when he taught, rehearsed and performed music. Oh, why wasn’t he on my e-mail address list? My father was the person with whom I most wanted to share this video.
Over the next months, I learned more and more about this young orchestra and how they came to be this way. And everything I learned about the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra steered me back to one person: Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu.
It has now been over thirty years since this conductor/organist/engineer gathered a handful of children in a garage in Caracas to teach them how to play music together. Out of this modest beginning, Maestro Abreu has fostered the phenomenal Venezuelan program, known as El Sistema, that combines social services with arts education at a level that has never before been achieved anywhere in the world.
There are over three hundred thousand children in Venezuela, most of them from the poorest neighborhoods, who are learning to play instruments and are participating in orchestras and choruses all over the country. The orchestra I saw on YouTube was in effect their All-Star team.
It all sounded too good to be true. Could El Sistema really be for real? I decided in April 2008 to travel to Caracas to see El Sistema with my own eyes.
I visited several nucleos – the pods of musical instruction that are established in the often deeply poor neighborhoods. I saw the four-year-olds playing singing and clapping games; the seven-year-olds beginning on their string instruments; the 12-year-olds already playing Beethoven and Mussorgsky; and the 15 year olds playing in fully mature, accomplished orchestras. The children were relaxed yet focused, exuberant yet utterly dedicated to their task. I’d never seen anything like it in all my life. In virtually all other respects, Caracas was a deeply troubled place: chaotic, choked with traffic and bursting at the seams with poverty. Yet it was a veritable musical utopia.
When at last I met Maestro Abreu, I began to understand how El Sistema had come so far. This diminutive gentleman radiated compassion and a patient, gentle intelligence. When he spoke, his sentences were forceful yet poetic. I began to see how he had managed to navigate every Venezuelan government over the past thirty years, persuading each one of the indispensability of his program.
Maestro Abreu’s fundamental, ground-breaking idea was to present his music education program to the government not as arts education, but as social services -- a program initially designed to get kids off the troubled streets after school was out in the afternoon. By positioning El Sistema this way, Maestro Abreu gambled that the government would be loath to cancel the program – and he was right. El Sistema is currently gearing up to have one million children participating in youth orchestras around Venezuela ten years from now.
This in itself would have been a magnificent enough accomplishment. But Maestro Abreu has created something even deeper in El Sistema. In contrast to the dysfunctional world they grow up in, these children spend several hours a day in an environment where they experience cooperation, dedication, patience, camaraderie, self-discipline, confidence to take on challenges, a sense of progress and personal success – and the joy of collaborating in the creation of beauty. No matter what these children choose to do as adults, they will take these important tools of life with them, and will inevitably change their world for the better. As one representative from El Sistema said to me: “We don’t build musicians; we build human beings.”
In Maestro Abreu’s universe, music education is not a frill that is the first item to be cut when the school budget runs low. On the contrary: music is a means toward social reparation. This is a big idea, and people around the world are noticing. El Sistema is beginning to be replicated in locations all over Europe and Latin America – and soon in the United States as well. Ever more nations and their governments are beginning to grasp the scope of Maestro Abreu’s vision.
Like Maestro Abreu, Leonard Bernstein believed in the power of music to transform the world. During his lifetime, my father worked very hard to communicate this idea through his teaching, his conducting, and through his own musical compositions. It is moving beyond words for my siblings and me to see Maestro Abreu manifesting this same idea at such an exalted level in our world today.
Not only has Maestro Abreu invented a program that teaches young people how to perform music with all their hearts and all their souls; he has also shown them a path to becoming evolved, compassionate human beings, poised to make their world a better place. I can think of few people on this earth who are more deserving of the Nobel Prize for Peace than Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu.