In Defense of El Sistema: The Case For Radical Public Arts

The Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is, along with Dudamel himself, perhaps the most widely revered product of the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar. Colloquially known as “El Sistema,” and funded entirely by the Venezuelan government the FMSB has over the past 37 years succeeded in its task of training literally hundreds of thousands of kids in classical music and technique.


It is surely one of the saddest comments on our bankrupted system that many of America’s city orchestras may be going the way of the dodo bird. It’s been woefully underreported by our news shows and periodicals, but it’s a process that is most definitely real. The recent years of economic crisis have brought with them several strikes, lockouts and labor disputes between highly-trained classical musicians and the management of city orchestras. 

Most well-known thus far has been the strike of American Federation of Musicians Local 5 against the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That strike lasted from October of 2010 to April of 2011, resulting in a partial victory for the musicians. This past January, the New York City Opera locked out its pit musicians. Most recent is Louisville, Kentucky, where in April the city’s symphony signed a contract that, while ending a similar lockout, also beat back significant pay cuts on the musicians.

In all of these struggles, the same contested issues arose: the right of musicians to make a decent living (proposed wage decreases have ranged anywhere from 30% in Detroit to a whopping 80% at the NYC Opera), and whether these musicians should shoulder the weight of management’s incompetence (many city symphonies have been hemorrhaging subscribers). More broadly, the overarching question is whether access to the arts is a privilege or a right, and whether or not any decent society will nurture that right.

One might reasonably point out that America’s symphony crisis is rooted in the decline in favor for classical among younger people in the working and middle classes. This could very well be true, though one should be cautious to not corner working people as the dumb, uncultured, Larry the Cable Guy clones that the one percent wishes us to be.

And yet, there are larger trends at play. As Ira Grupper reported in a recent article on the Louisville lockout, the Jefferson County School Board was as much to blame as the management of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra (KYSO). It was the school board who canceled a program providing for 4th and 5th graders to attend KYSO performances as part of their music appreciation. Before its cancellation, this program had been in existence for over 70 years, and had provided the orchestra with a pillar in its funding.

If kids are imbued with no sense of classical music’s importance, if no attempt is made to place the great composers in some kind of context, can we really be surprised that young people are shrugging their shoulders?

The fact that questions like these even have to be asked is enough to make a true music lover despondent. In a society that needs little from ordinary people aside from their ability to perform monotonous, mind-numbing labor, music and the arts are seen as disposable. The outright assault on working musicians’ wages also reveals that only a tiny fraction of orchestras’ funding comes from local or state governments, despite the fact that most orchestras carry the name of their city. On the whole, these institutions rely on the money of season ticket holders and the patronage of the rich. Another model is desperately needed.

Strangely enough, one doesn’t have to look far to find an example of this alternative model. True, there are examples several decades back in US history–the large public arts projects that emerged as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration–but there actually isn’t any need to go even that far back.

Look at, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The institution itself is little different from most US city orchestras; it’s funding is primarily private, but its innovative programming has allowed it to remain relevant to the LA public. Of particular note is their conductor: Gustavo Dudamel

At the relatively tender age of thirty-one, Dudamel is among the youngest of the world’s most accomplished classical conductors. It’s not just Los Angeles that has him in high demand; he is also the conductor for the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden and is frequently requested as a guest around the globe. In fact, his youthful and ebullient charisma has made him something of a rarity for modern classical music: a celebrity!

On June 23rd and 26th, Dudamel performed for a packed house in London’s Royal Festival Hall. He was conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, from his native Venezuela. The performances were called by one Guardian commentator “vivid painting in sound, but also a psychological journey, a journey of the human spirit.” She wasn’t laying it on thick. 

The Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is, along with Dudamel himself, perhaps the most widely revered product of the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar. Colloquially known as “El Sistema,” and funded entirely by the Venezuelan government the FMSB has over the past 37 years succeeded in its task of training literally hundreds of thousands of kids in classical music and technique. 

Once the main component of El Sistema, the median age of the Bolívar Symphony is now too high for it to pass as a “youth orchestra.” The symphony’s success and skill, however, meant that El Sistema was loath to simply scatter its musicians to the wind, and so it was graduated en masse to a full, world-touring, professional orchestra. Another youth orchestra has taken its place representing the cream of the crop within Sistema, alongside many others, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that this one will sooner or later also become a force to be reckoned with.

An estimated 70 to 90 percent of Sistema’s students come from poor families. Pianist and scholar José Antonio Abreu, who founded the program in 1975, has stated in the past that “Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values–solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.”

It’s this, along with savvy political maneuvering from Abreu, that has kept Sistema going for almost four decades and several administrations. While so many scripted US politicians may give lip-service to “investing in our nation’s children,” Abreu and Sistema have put it into real, tangible practice. More than this, the program has thrived, giving rise to world-class musicians and orchestras like Dudamel and the Bolívar Symphony. 

For his own part, Dudamel has infused Sistema’s populist sensibility into his own work in Gothenburg and LA, assembling free concerts in poor Swedish suburbs and pushing those who work at the LA Phil to bring their friends:

“I said, ‘We have to do concerts for these people!’ Because they are working there, they are giving their life for that hall and they love classical music. It’s the same for the community… It’s not that people don’t like classical music. It’s that they don’t have the chance to understand and to experience it. Going to a concert can sometimes be very difficult. It can be a long journey. There’s the ticket prices. But when the music goes to the community–not the community coming to the concert–they say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that this music was so amazing!’”

Not everyone is quite so excited about Sistema’s current iteration, however. In particular, they are upset that the program has received increased funding and attention on the watch of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Gabriela Montero, a world-famous Venezuelan pianist who was an original member of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, expressed to the New York Times in February that “A lot of us are upset that Chávez has taken Sistema as his own child, and it’s not… It’s almost like he’s stolen something that we lived with for the past 40 years and dirtied it with his presence.”

Montero, whose mother is American, is part of the small clique of elite Venezuelans who, throughout the process of the “Bolívarian revolution” have set out to discredit and slander Chávez in any way possible. Ever since the failed US-backed coup against the president in 2002, he has declared a model of “socialism for the 21st century.” He has seized control of Venezuelan oil companies and supplemented social spending any way he can possibly manage. And, of course, he’s attempted a balancing act of thumbing his nose at Venezuela’s ruling class and its US backers without rocking the boat too much.

Chávez’s public embrace of El Sistema is part and parcel of his overall attempts to bolster his popularity and carry through the establishment of a robust social safety net. In 2010, Sistema was placed under direct control of the president’s office, a move that had many in the bash-Chávez brigade calling “tyrant.”

Gustavo Coronel, an anti-Chávez member of Venezuelan parliament and oil official (hint), wrote in an online editorial for Petroleum World (hint, hint!) that photos of meetings between Abreu and the president “reminded us of other sad times, like Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler” or “Ezra Pound’s with Mussolini.”

Abreu, who has kept Sistema going through right and left-wing administrations, is notably less histrionic when explaining his own connections with Chávez: “our relationship with the state is very simple. Our kids have the right, the constitutionally given right, to musical education.”

This, as we’ve seen, is the polar opposite of the way symphony orchestras are treated by American society. So too in relation to arts education. Here in the US, the arts are an afterthought, and teaching kids how to appreciate or make it is viewed as a waste of time–a distraction from the task of turning them to the perfect, unquestioning stock-boy and fast-food worker, cubicle jockey and soldier. So it’s little wonder that, just as the nation of Venezuela has found its way into American imperial crosshairs, and even as the whole military industrial edifice finds itself interminably stalled, Sistema has been the target of derision.

Over all of this, the Sistema model has met with great interest from many who would agree with Abreu’s belief in the power of music. Sistema has been the subject of several documentaries over the past several years: The Promise of Music in 2008, El Sistema: Music to Change Life in 2009, and Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight) in 2010. In January, writer Tricia Tunstall released her book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

Dudamel himself has been invited to set up programs emulating El Sistema in the US–most notably in collaboration with the LA Phil and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The major difference of course is that, just as most American city orchestras are primarily funded with private money, so are the Sistema-copy programs. 

It is certainly worth noting, however, that like Sistema, most of the kids in these programs are from poor and working class backgrounds. While this is a contradiction that may one day down the line create problems (private funding for programs that help the poor only lasts as long as the philanthropists’ desire for public praise) it does create a crack in the accepted norm. 

That crack, generally, is one that presents a threat to the established order here in the United States–particularly when it comes to the narrow dialogue on children’s public access to culture. There used to be a time, believe it or not, when that access was valued; it was one of the motivations behind the Public Broadcasting Service and shows like Sesame Street. It was one of the reasons that every museum sought to include a children’s section. It was respect for a child’s intelligence, creativity and innate curiosity. Though seldom mentioned nowadays, it’s been a focal point of every successful attempt at youth arts education, and is now the focal point in Sistema.

Perhaps most threatening about El Sistema is the fact that it works. Children who have gone through the program haven’t only succeeded; many, like Dudamel, have gone on to become accomplished musicians, composers or conductors. For all the distracting pomp and circumstance spewed by the US ruling elite, their saber rattling only really serves to cover a paralyzing fear of a different economic model–one where people’s needs and talents come first.

That success El Sistema’s success is so stunning makes the tragedy of America’s public arts all the more pronounced. How many Mozarts or Debussys will never have their latent talent nurtured? How many Pavarottis may be left behind because school boards didn’t see them as a worthwhile investment? We may never know the answer to that, but we’ll certainly all be poorer for it. If that isn’t to be the case, then perhaps we would do well to take a cue from our Venezuelan counterparts: in order to play, we need to fight.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist based in Chicago. He runs the website Rebel Frequencies (www.rebelfrequencies.net) and is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective. His first book, Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance, will be released in the fall. He can be reached at[email protected].