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Music

Composer and activist Abreu brings music to Venezuelan kids

Jose Antonio Abreu embodies "utopia and freedom in music," said the Director of Beethovenfest Bonn. The celebrated activist talked with DW about his goals and successes with the youth orchestras he founded in Venezuela.

A person playing the violin

Children who play in orchestras do better in school, says Jose Antonio Abreu

This year's official patron of the Beethovenfest Bonn embodies the motto "Utopia and Freedom in Music" like no one else, said the festival's Director Ilona Schmiel. Venezuelan composer, economist, politician, mentor and activist Jose Antonio Abreu succeeded in founding his country's biggest music education project three decades ago, known as El Sistema ("The System"). The project gives low-income children the opportunity to play in classical orchestras. It has affected not only the lives of hundreds of thousands of economically disadvantaged children in Venezuela but also the classical music scene worldwide. Abreu spoke with Deutsche Welle about his goals and successes with El Sistema.


Deutsche Welle: What was the original idea behind El Sistema? And what were some of your first experiences with the project?

Jose Antonio Abreu: Primarily, it was about advancing music education in Venezuela by creating a platform to educate children and show young people how they could work together as a community to create music. Currently, we have 350,000 kids and young people throughout the country. The kids can then become role models not just in their own homes, but also in the neighborhood and even in the entire community.

How did the cooperation with the Beethovenfest come about?

The director of the Beethovenfest got in contact with us, understood the nature and impact of our work and opened up the festival to Venezuela. That was in 2004.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Caracas Youth Symphony

Dudamel has branched out from El Sistema to other international orchetras

What results has the cooperation had?

Back then, our excellent conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, was just getting underway with his unique and successful career. He made his international debut as a conductor with us. Claudio Abbado, artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, was then working in Caracas and came to hear one of our orchestra's rehearsals. He invited us to come and play in the Berlin Philharmonic. Abbado then initiated a lasting exchange between our orchestra and his. Since then, outstanding directors have continued to visit our country throughout the year and offer master classes.

Do you have other partnerships or connections with Bonn, Beethoven's birthplace?

When our orchestra first came to Germany, we were able to visit the Beethoven House in Bonn. That was an emotional, intellectual and artistic experience that cannot be described in words. So, you could say that the orchestra has its heart in Bonn.

Now, a second generation is coming - the Teresa Careno Symphony Orchestra. The musicians average 15 years of age and will perform at the Beethovenfest on September 28.
 
The model of music education you've introduced has set a precedent. Which of El Sistema's core principles are indispensible?

Well, first of all, the orchestra has to make music every day. Second, the orchestra must also go beyond itself. For us, that means we give expression to national pride and our sense of self-worth. Third, once you've created such a massive musical education system, there's the danger that the quality will suffer. You can only prevent that outcome by focusing all of your energy on quality. In order to do that, it's essential to have a sense of how we match up internationally.

Jose Antonio Abreu

Abreu wants to see the program's participants serve as role models in their communities

What about the musicians in your orchestra that don't make it to the top? Do they still contribute to the orchestra's social goals?

Longitudinal studies show that a child who is part of an orchestra does better in school. Furthermore, in cities where our orchestras exist, there is demonstrably less violence and drug abuse.

What does the future look like for El Sistema? What goals do you have now?

More and more kids around the world should have the chance to receive music education. In Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal, we founded an orchestra that can collectively represent the best of these Latin American and Ibero-American countries. Its name is "The Ibero-American Region in Music."

The next step will be creating an Ibero-American choir. We're also looking forward to regular meetings with youth orchestras in Europe, Asia and Australia, or also with young ensembles from Egypt, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa.

Interview: Rick Fulker (tgl, gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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