Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sex, lies and El Sistema

The serried ranks of an El Sistema youth orchestra in Caracas, 2012 —
a ‘miracle’ that’s turned very sour
The two trendiest words in classical music are ‘El Sistema’. That’s the name for the high-intensity programme of instrumental coaching that turned kids from the slums of Venezuela into the thrilling Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO), conducted by hot young maestro Gustavo Dudamel before he was poached by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Or so the legend goes. When the SBYO was booked for the Proms in 2011, the concert sold out in three hours. Sir Simon Rattle, no less, declared El Sistema to be ‘the most important thing happening to classical music anywhere in the world’. Audiences wept at the sight of former street urchins producing a tumultuous, triumphant — and virtually note-perfect — performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘If people cry two minutes into the concert, there’s nothing more to say,’ declared Rattle.

But it turns out that there is more to say, though it was last week before anyone spelled it out. The musicologist Geoff Baker has just written a heavily footnoted academic study of the Venezuelan ‘miracle’ entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Baker and his publishers, Oxford University Press, did not leak its contents in advance. El Sistema has powerful and very rich sponsors who might have blocked publication. But OUP’s lawyers crawled over every page. They had to.

Baker portrays El Sistema’s founder, the 75-year-old Jose Antonio Abreu, as a bully and political sycophant whose ‘system’ subjects children to brutal practising regimes that went out of fashion in the West decades ago. It’s more of a state-sponsored cult than a philanthropic marvel, says Baker.

Most disturbingly, he alleges that El Sistema permits the sort of sexual abuse of young musicians by their teachers that has recently come to light in British classical music circles — especially at Chetham’s school in Manchester.  (more...)

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