Tuesday, 22 May 2007

El Sistema

cyntillating sounds opus six

Venezuela is in the political dog house at the moment. President Chávez is just too friendly with Castro, too money mad with oil, and just too cheeky for the western world. He needs a more liberal strategy and certainly a better spin doctor.

The best advertisement for Venezuela recently is not political but musical: Gustavo Dudamel, a 26 year old conducting phenomenon already becoming a household word around the classical music globe. Behind the talent, good looks, well run career and unbridled youthful enthusiasm for the greatest symphonies ever written, Dudamel has a special personal story. He is a product of ‘el sistema’; the name sounds horrific and conjures up some smelly left overs from bad regimes, both left and right, sore spots from man’s violent history.

But ‘el sistema’ is a miracle of an idea: partner kids with no future and very great music, take a long, deep breath, dare to hold on and wait, spend some money on it and you get the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, selling giga number of records, getting the best conducting jobs now on offer and being a perfect role model to the young for interesting them in classical music in far more liberal countries than Venezuela, both rich and poor.

Thirty years ago, an economist, José Antonio Abreu, had the visionary idea of confronting kids from bad neighbourhoods with instruments of good music. He gave them those instruments, organized lessons and orchestras and el sistema was off and running. As quoted by Shirley Apthorp, one young clarinettist with an extensive police record was amazed when he was not only handed a clarinet but told it was his, saying “it felt better in my hands than a gun”. Dudamel was another such young kid with a dubious origin who has turned his musical upbringing into a formidable career in the blink of an eye.

One can only speculate with mouth watering pleasure what a guy like Gustavo can do for classical music in a place like L.A. where he has recently been appointed as Music Director of the Philharmonic. So close to bad neighbourhoods needing an uplife, so close to Hollywood, new media moguls, and with those looks, that talent and that musical given.
And it is surely within the realm of reason that he can turn around the aging public that attends the subscription concerts of the LA Phil, a group one former administrator described as ‘the Rotary club for the over eighty’.

Sports have their heroes at regular intervals. Classical music has its own, of course. But since the death of Leonard Bernstein, American classical music has not since had this kind of charisma on its shores. Being himself a product of a political system in which arts education is a high priority, let us hope that some of that oddly rooted wisdom can rub off on American educational arts projects and media decision makers: let’s get Gustavo Dudamel into our schools and tv sets as soon and as often as possible in the coming years!