AS he slowly walked through the adoring and bubbling crowd of young people, the frail elderly man brushed a cheek, clasped an arm, bestowed a smile. He lingered affectionately with members of a choir composed of disabled youngsters.
For anyone who observed Pope John Paul II in action amid third-world crowds during the later years of his papacy, it was a familiar sight: the charisma, the smiles, the contrast of stooped holy man and spirited youngsters, the solicitousness for the weak.
But on this February day at the Teresa Carreño Theater here, the center of attention was not a pope. It was José Antonio Abreu, the founder and influential leader of a classical music education program called El Sistema. Mr. Abreu was showing off some of its orchestras to visiting Americans in an elaborately choreographed showcase.
The endless explorations of El Sistema, in articles, documentaries and books, give little attention to one of its more striking aspects: a similarity to organized religion and, more specifically, the Roman Catholic Church.
Venezuela is not especially a deeply Catholic country, and El Sistema’s top rank of musicians do not display piety. But through the influence of Mr. Abreu, who professes deep religious devotion, the trappings of a church have emerged, even if the similarities are only a question of atmospherics. It is possible to extrapolate that a good part of El Sistema’s success is due to these trappings, or at least to the single-minded focus on spreading the gospel of social action through music.
El Sistema absorbs hundreds of thousands of young Venezuelans into orchestras and other ensembles, providing intensive musical training as an antidote to the ills of poverty, an enveloping reality in this country despite its oil wealth.
Founded in 1975, El Sistema has in recent years also begun producing a generation of talented musicians now competing on the international stage. Classical music educators, administrators and professional players around the world have clutched at its mantle, forming alliances with the movement, establishing Sistema-inspired music programs and engaging its top orchestras and their conductors.
Mr. Abreu is referred to by his loyalists as a father, a saint, a visionary, a philosopher or, most often, simply as maestro. There is a foundational story: his gathering of 11 young musicians in a garage in 1975 to start the whole project. Most of those founders, as they are called, have stayed with the organization or gone on to run parts of it with apostolic devotion. Its ranks are self-perpetuating: talented alumni inevitably go on to run music centers, called núcleos, or teach at them.
“El Sistema is a way of life for hundreds of thousands of people in Venezuela, the region and, I can say, the world,” said Maria Guinand, a Venezuelan choral conductor who works with Sistema orchestras.
Followers often tell stories of how Mr. Abreu came to them with special assignments, plucking them up and giving them jobs to do or núcleos to run, like a posting in a poor parish for young priests. He is said to dictate career moves among the top echelon of musicians.
El Sistema has its musical scripture: Tchaikovsky’s “1812” and the finale of his Symphony No. 4; the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”; Venezuela’s unofficial national anthem, “Alma Llanera”; and other core works that the student orchestras play in arrangements at varying levels of difficulty.
Mr. Abreu and his inner circle are persistent evangelizers for El Sistema, proclaiming its advocacy of social justice with the zeal of missionaries. Mr. Abreu travels the world, touring with the program’s top orchestras, visiting similar programs, receiving honors, often meeting with other music educators and administrators.
“It’s important that our principle of action be known not only in Venezuela but in Latin America and the world at large,” he said in an interview last month. “We need to be messengers,” he said, of the “social mission of art.”
He added, “I’ve dedicated all my efforts to have the poorest, the ones most excluded, have access to musical education.”
Sitting slightly hunched in a leather chair in a tiny Sistema office here Mr. Abreu granted an audience to reporters, who were ushered in one by one for about 20 minutes each. His right-hand man, Rodrigo Guerrero, who oversees international affairs and institutional development, fluently translated Mr. Abreu’s flowing sentences. Wearing his ever-present gray wool overcoat, Mr. Abreu gesticulated expressively and showed no sign of flagging despite the long morning.
He called El Sistema an antidote to violence. “So when we perform abroad, we are messengers of peace but also for social justice,” he said. He was unperturbed when it was pointed out that Venezuela has become one of the most violent societies in the world. Violence is a global problem, he said: “Orchestras and choirs are incredibly effective instruments against violence.”
Moments later Mr. Abreu imparted one of the aphorisms that are often repeated: “The most holy of human rights is the right to art.”
Mr. Abreu, 73, has degrees in keyboard and composition, and he studied conducting. He followed a parallel career as an economist and served in past governments as a member of Parliament, an economic adviser and a culture minister.
An official history of El Sistema calls him its “soul and guiding light.” He is unmarried and lives what many call an ascetic life completely devoted to the program. In comments quoted in the history, “Venezuela Bursting With Orchestras,” Mr. Abreu describes himself as a deeply devout Catholic and calls himself “a priest, a humble servant of Jesus Christ” who aspires to be “an ideal, noble and invincible servant of God.”
Mr. Abreu runs El Sistema with aspects of a society-improving religious cult, said one Venezuelan who has known him for decades. “The ones that are converted think of him as a saint,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing their relationship. “The ones that are not converted think of him as a very incredible man that has created this institution that has a lot of merit, but they do not see him as a saint, because they have felt his whip. When there are saints, there is no room for dissidents.”
A rising Sistema conducting talent, Joshua Dos Santos, acknowledged that Mr. Abreu has to show strictness and force of character for El Sistema to thrive. “He is the father,” Mr. Dos Santos said. “We are all his children.”
Another Venezuelan who has long known Mr. Abreu, Moisés Naím, a frequent commentator on national affairs, attributed the adulation for Mr. Abreu to pride in a country whose main claims to fame are oil, beauty queens and baseball players. “This is a country that has had a long string of failures, and then here comes a smashing success,” Mr. Naím said.
Much of the success is due to Mr. Abreu’s savvy at maneuvering through successive governments, including the current rule of Hugo Chávez, the populist president who has placed El Sistema under his office and cites it as an exemplar of his “Bolivarian revolution.” Some critics of Mr. Chávez have found fault with Mr. Abreu for what they consider excessive coziness with the Chávez government. Mr. Abreu rejected the notion.
“I’ve never felt any pressure of a political character,” he said.
Given Mr. Abreu’s grip on El Sistema, the question of succession has arisen. Supporters feel sure he has a plan, and some suggest Gustavo Dudamel, his protégé and El Sistema’s music director, will take on a greater role. Mr. Abreu said El Sistema will remain strong because of the presence of a generation of experienced leaders and expressed confidence that the executive director, Eduardo Méndez, his hand-picked administrator, would be able to carry on. “He’s a true social and artistic manager of the highest quality,” he said.
Foreign visitors who come through Venezuela to see El Sistema in action are often captivated. Mr. Abreu’s operation in Caracas is a well-oiled machine when it comes to welcoming outsiders.
The effort was on full view last month, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic came for a week of concerts under the leadership of Mr. Dudamel, who is El Sistema’s best-known product and is famous in his own right in Venezuela. The connection has produced close ties between the Philharmonic and El Sistema. The orchestra’s president, Deborah Borda, is a firm convert and has become one of El Sistema’s most prominent American boosters.
Los Angeles musicians, between rehearsals and concerts, visited El Sistema’s main rehearsal and teaching center to give master classes, traveling in buses under close police and private-guard supervision because of Caracas’s pervasive crime.
At many of the master classes Sistema students put on spectacular displays of talent, rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. Part of El Sistema’s philosophy is to expose youngsters to constant performance from the earliest years.
Toward the end of the visit the orchestra as a whole, staff members, patrons and members of the news media were treated to a series of performances, by a brass ensemble, choruses and orchestras at the Teresa Carreño Theater complex. Each orchestra seemed to grow larger, with the biggest numbering 640 members. They played with extravagant precision and almost scary intensity, not to mention volume. All the parts were memorized.
“We are simply overwhelmed,” Ms. Borda told Mr. Abreu and the young Venezuelan performers. “You have worked a miracle, and we are so honored and humble to be a part of it.”
Lavishly financed by the government, El Sistema has 280 centers around Venezuela and 310,000 students. It counts roughly 500 orchestras and other ensembles.
Mr. Abreu has relentlessly sought to keep it growing. The Inter-American Development Bank has granted Venezuela a $150 million loan to help pay for regional centers around the country. Plans are moving ahead to expand El Sistema’s new central structure in Caracas, including the addition of two concert halls. Frank Gehry has been asked to design a center and hall in Barquisimeto, a city about 220 miles west of Caracas and the hometown of Mr. Abreu and Mr. Dudamel. The internationally known acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota will work on both projects, Sistema officials said.
Meanwhile El Sistema’s influence on the international classical music scene is expanding. The conducting career of Mr. Dudamel, El Sistema’s star graduate, is growing by leaps and bounds. He has eight CDs on Deutsche Grammophon, mainly leading El Sistema’s flagship Simón Bolívar Symphony orchestra; seven iTunes releases with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and at least nine more recording projects planned for the next few years.
Other Sistema conductors are taking on jobs outside Venezuela. Last year Diego Matheuz was named principal conductor of the Fenice opera in Venice and Christian Vásquez, chief conductor of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in Norway.
Most symbolically important, El Sistema’s flagship orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Symphony, has dropped the word “youth” from its name, a sign of its maturity and professionalization. The new group for teenagers, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, is represented by Askonas Holt, a major British artist management company, for tours. A Simón Bolívar String Quartet has been formed and is also recording with Deutsche Grammophon.
But in the tradition of El Sistema, the newly minted stars stay closely connected to the mother ship, returning often to conduct and teach.
“We can have external careers as conductors, but we will always go home to support El Sistema,” said Manuel López-Gómez, a Sistema podium talent with a budding international career. “It’s something ethical. We have to help the next generation.”NYT