Music as Life-Saving Project: Venezuela’s El Sistema in American Neo-Idealistic Imagination

April 28, 2014


The U.S. reception of El Sistema has been, for the most part, enthusiastic, as reflected in numerous media articles and the literature of prominent advocates such as Tricia Tunstall. An analysis of these sources points to a tendency on the part of U.S. El Sistema admirers to value the program on account of its close ties to the genre of classical music and its potential to positively influence individuals and communities. At the same time, an examination of El Sistema’s profile, as reflected in documentaries, in Abreu’s public statements, and in historical and archival sources, points to a complex socio-musical institution grounded in a transformational social vision that exceeds a modest community-service dimension. From this fluid profile also emerges an aesthetic tendency to idealize orchestral practice while seeking a dismantling of the classical/pop schism. A comparative study of historical and philosophical currents in the U.S. and Venezuela provides a deeper perspective on the important differences between the neo-idealistic values of El Sistema and those of its U.S. admirers. The U.S. brand of neo-idealism tends to exceptionalize classical music, a selected body of masterpieces, and the notion that a contemplative intimacy with music can be life-changing. El Sistema’s post-colonial impetus informs its search for a social transformation of broad dimension and favors a neo-idealism that exceptionalizes the performative, collective, and nationalistic aspects of orchestral practice. Ultimately, in the international concert hall, Venezuelan youths see themselves empowered through the medium of the orchestra, while U.S. classical music lovers see the same empowerment as evidence of a repertoire’s transformational power. The differing values of both parties are conflated in the phrase the power of music.

“If anybody asked me, where is there something really important going on for the future of classical music, I would simply have to say, here in Venezuela.” Conductor Sir Simon Rattle offered this dictum in 2005 at a press conference in Caracas after spending time working with the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (Sinfónica de la JuventudVenezolana) and witnessing the pedagogical daily routine of El Sistema. “The future of classical music is in Venezuela” became a slogan restated three years later by CBS correspondent Bob Simon in a 60 Minutes piece, and later reprinted in the jacket of Smaczny and Stodtmeier’s documentary on El Sistema.1 In the U.S., the 60 Minutes piece was widely distributed2 and it was likely through this medium that many musicians first became aware of El Sistema. The story exploits the apparent incongruity of associating a poor Latin American country with classical music, juxtaposing images of the slums of Venezuela and its destitute residents with those of young people playing orchestral instruments. “At its root, this is a social system that fights poverty; the child’s physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides,” says José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema.3 The journalistic piece unfolds by showing very young children learning to play violins and oboes, and interviewing kids whose lives have been positively impacted thanks to their involvement in the program. At one point, Raphael Elster, one of El Sistema’s instructors, emphatically reiterates that popular music would not work: “Their father, who drinks every day, he gets drunk with that music, …. So you have to give them something different. When they sit in one of these chairs in the orchestra, they think they're in another country, in another planet. And they start changing,” to which Bob Simons replies, “and we are listening to it right now.”

For a shred of a second, the viewer may expect a visual trek to a rehearsal hall full of young children playing a selection from Beethoven or Mozart. This is, after all, Elster’s implied neo-idealistic philosophy: that classical music transports these children to a place away from poverty and misery (away from Venezuela itself?). Surprisingly, the viewer indeed travels to an orchestral rehearsal, but the conductor is shouting gózalo!4 the 10-year-old-or-so violin players are dancing, and the rhythms heard are those of the Caribbean clave. The work in rehearsal is Arturo Márquez’ Danzón 2, the danzón being a historical and stylistic ancestor of salsa music, one of the most popular styles of music in Venezuela, and one to which the hypothetical drunk father is likely to be listening on the radio.

A substitution of the term orchestral practice for classical music would appear to solve the visual and sonic contradiction identified above. Nevertheless, such substitution would deny the weight that the producers of the 60 minutes piece wish to place on the idealized genre of classical music. The piece aired, carrying with it the intended message that classical music is changing the lives of poor children in Venezuela, and the unintended one that these children are in turn challenging what we understand for classical music.

This and other compelling paradoxes surface in various ways throughout the documentaries and publications that have recently addressed El Sistema. The sonic picture that emerges from this body of media and literature is one where classical music stands not merely for the standard repertoire of Beethoven, Mozart, and Mahler, but also for a variety of vernacular musics, all of which emanate from the ensemble of the symphony orchestra. Furthermore, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of El Sistemas flagship orchestras and of its most famous graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, is their performative style, which by all accounts subverts the stereotypical contemplative ambience of the traditional concert hall. Classical music, nationalistic identity, and empowerment are the main notions negotiated in the international image of El Sistema, aurally, visually, and aesthetically. El Sistema’s image excels in adaptive versatility, its orchestras firmly rooted in the classical music category but notably capable of speaking with powerful vernacular and popular voices.

One must note, however, that nowhere in the mission of El Sistema is classical music mentioned as a fundamental element of its objectives:

The Simon Bolivar Musical Foundation constitutes a social taskforce of the Venezuelan State consecrated to the pedagogical, occupational, and ethical rescue of child and youth, through the collective instruction and practice of music, dedicated to the training, prevention, and recovery of the most vulnerable groups of the country ….5

In line with this published mission, musician, politician, and patriarch founder of the program, José Antonio Abreu, unequivocally renders the choir and the orchestra as the means to a social end. As I will discuss further on, his rhetoric is notably devoid of the phrase classical music and the program’s website explicitly declares that one of its basic premises is to “consider music as an integral art and not to make radical distinctions between genres.”6 El Sistema’s social mission appears to supersede aesthetic priorities, particularly those that in any way would favor the repertoire commonly referred to as classical music.

El Sistemas flagship orchestras and its idealistic social goals have garnered widespread international attention, stimulating the creation of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs, a group of U.S. musicians and educators, who, with Abreu’s blessing, are attempting to import aspects of the program to the U.S. (as are many in other countries).7 Recent dialogues among some of the involved personalities reflect the complexity inherent in the identity and vision of the program in Venezuela. Tricia Tunstall, for example, rejects Melissa Lesniak’s definition of El Sistema—“a music education program for aspiring musicians … of limited means,”—arguing that the goal of El Sistema is not to foster “the development of professional musicians” but “the growth of children toward being cooperative, productive, and joyful members of a community and a society.”8 Nevertheless, El Sistema’s goals and practices are as evasive as its aesthetic image in relation to classical music. Ultimately, although Tunstall comprehends El Sistema’s avowed goals, the history and dimension of the program in Venezuela problematizes its functional transparency. Reports published in 2010 speak of 396 youth, children, and toddler orchestras, 342 youth and children choirs, and 230 núcleos in a country roughly the geographical and demographic size of Texas.9 As I have expounded elsewhere, the program’s sanctioned histories make it abundantly clear that El Sistema sees itself as a revolutionary system of music education, and that its founding members were looking for an orchestral outlet of a professional nature.10 The social philosophy of El Sistema and the network of núcleos developed after its educational and professional profiles were firmly established. In addition, El Sistema continues to influence Venezuela’s national music curriculum parameters and, in turn, the institutional practices of the public conservatory system that predated it by decades.11 Most importantly, El Sistema’s heavy investments in master classes conducted by renowned international musicians, the emphasis placed on the high achievement of its flagship orchestras, and a curricular infrastructure historically and administratively connected with the country’s university-level music programs, all bespeak a program whose unassuming musical goals are debatable.12

Albeit the fact El Sistema functions under the federal body and generous funding of the Ministerio del Poder Popular (Ministry of People’s Power) many in Venezuela would argue that the program has indeed become, if not the default music education system of the country, at least the most powerful one, both ideologically and financially. Most notably, Abreu’s belief in the social mission of art13 and in El Sistema as a unique antidote to transform society, to fight poverty and violence through spiritual richness,14 all project a socio-religious mission that rhetorically and philosophically exceeds the dimension of prevention and rescue delineated in the program’s website. Abreu’s faith in the program is imperturbable, even in the face of arguments that call attention to the rising violence in Venezuela.15 Given the elusive, yet ambitious socio-aesthetic profile of El Sistema, it should come as no surprise that educators such as Lesniak “misunderstand” the program’s goals. Most interestingly, Tunstall, one of the program’s advocates with most extensive experience, seems amenable to, on the one hand, understating Abreu’s ambitious doctrine of social transformation with a definition of joyful membership in a community, and on the other, overstating the program’s profile in relation to the values of classical music. As in Rattle’s statements and the title bestowed on Gustavo Dudamel as the “savior of classical music,”16 this trend is evident in her text, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music. Tunstall opens her book chastising the “international pop culture that has relegated the traditions of the symphony orchestra to near-obsolescence,” while alluding to Dudamel and “the system that produced him” as a “revelation,” an “initiative that has suddenly infused classical music with new energy and relevance.” Indeed, by referring to the “incomparably rich artistic and expressive power of classical music,” Tunstall reveals a deep regard for the very musical practices that supposedly receive peripheral value in the program’s goals and practices.17 This swapping of values indicates that a dialogue of understanding in relation to El Sistema continues to be fraught with fascinating equivocations.

Prose of an advocating nature on El Sistema abounds, as well as dialogues regarding its pedagogical practices, but critical scholarship on the history and aesthetics of El Sistema is just beginning to surface. Musicologist Geoffrey Baker’s existing and forthcoming work should continue to provide perspective on the program’s internal dynamics and socio-musical impact, as well as on the largely ignored perceptions of Venezuelan agents not associated with El Sistema.18 As someone whose cultural and academic roots run deep in both Venezuelan and U.S. institutional terrain, my perspective is that a historical and philosophical comparative examination of prominent ideological currents in both countries would be valuable to both parties as they continue to develop their vision and objectives. As in other work of my own (see note 10), the purpose of this article is to contribute to this discussion, by scrutinizing the international media construction of the program, the statements of the prominent leaders both in Venezuela and the U.S, and the neo-idealistic aesthetic and historical frameworks that bring together the values of El Sistema’s agents and their U.S. admirers. To this end, I briefly contextualize the term neo-idealism by identifying the similarities between the rhetoric that surrounds El Sistema and that of two influential nineteenth-century lines of thought in Romantic idealism. I then examine prominent past and present neo-idealistic voices associated with the U.S. music academy, voices that personify the historical-aesthetic framework upon which many El Sistema enthusiasts stand. This examination is particularly valuable; although in musicological and ethnomusicological circles the doctrines of the masterwork’s preeminence and of classical music’s exceptionality have been largely discredited,19 these doctrines are still accepted a priori in U.S. academic circles, and their premises inform the U.S. reception of El Sistema. Finally, I probe the fluid neo-idealistic aesthetics of El Sistema, in the ways it presents itself to the media, in its search for a dismantling of the classical/pop schism, and in the postcolonial historical context of a complex milieu far more concerned with issues of identity and nationalism than its U.S. counterpart ever was. I close by underscoring the aesthetic values projected in the U.S. reception of El Sistema, values that differ in subtle but crucial ways with those of El Sistema in Venezuela and that point to the teleological tendency of its U.S. admirers to see the program as the fulfillment of classical music’s exceptional potential.

I should emphasize that the core of this article does not directly critique neo-idealistic doctrines; such critiques have been compellingly advanced in the last thirty years by a host of scholars, as I have already noted. Nevertheless, in the Critical Epilogue I do touch on important issues that could be further explored in the future.

Neo-Idealistic Rhetoric Surrounding El Sistema

I always excuse myself for not being able to speak Spanish better, but all the same I try to express myself. We musicians have other ways of expressing ourselves with people. It’s a deeper communication, through hands and eyes and through something else more transcendental, music. This is why we musicians have a privilege which is to make something that is very beautiful called music. And we can all make music together, without barriers, frontiers, or ages to mediate between us; without prejudice, without continents to separate us.20

This is Claudio Abbado’s answer to the inquiry posed by a Venezuelan journalist: “What does it mean for you to make music with Latin American youths and children?” The question calls attention to the apparent foreignness of the children, providing Abbado with an opportunity to idealize music as ineffable, transcendental, and capable of suspending ethnic and geographical barriers. On a similar vein, Tunstall opens her book describing Dudamel’s welcome concert at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl on October 3, 2009. The event was heavily marketed to attract the city’s Latino population, an otherwise “relatively invisible half” in “major cultural events.”21 Tunstall continues with a riveting narrative of the performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA); she remarks:

The use of the Ninth Symphony to symbolize and celebrate the brotherhood of man has become almost reflexive in the European and North American cultural history of the past two centuries. But here in this context, with a South American conductor, a chorus of white, African-American, Latino, and Asian singers, and thousands of Latino listeners, the symbolism is newly moving.22

The baritone sings the now familiar words Alle Menschen werden Brüder, and when the translation appears in the subtitles, the crowd of 18,000 “erupts in cheers.” Dudamel’s heart—she continues—“lies in musical joy, in the spontaneous feeling aroused by great music …. As the movement presses toward its epic conclusion, he seems to be not only conducting the orchestra and chorus but also, in the most literal sense of the word, conducting the audience, leading us into the ecstatic space opened up by this music.”23 Throughout the book, Tunstall emphasizes the notion of music’s power to open an ecstatic space, calling attention, for example, to the comfort with which El Sistema’s children speak of class and race differences disappearing in the communal act of music making, to the “visceral excitement” the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO)24 brings to the concert hall, and to their “capacity to bring their listeners into their own experience of music as joyful community.”25

Abbado and Tunstall’s rhetoric echoes that of Romantic critics such as Gustav Schilling, who in 1844 called attention to a performance by Franz Liszt as erasing “degrees of education” and “national traces.”26 Liszt himself once described a Hamburg music festival in remarkably similar terms to those used by Abbado and Tunstall: “Until you have been to Germany, my dear Léon, you can only have a very vague idea of what these large musical celebrations can be, exciting the whole population as they do, uniting all classes of society, even if only for a few days, in a communality of enjoyment ….”27 The notion of music as a uniting, transcending force, correlates with an earlier and broader conception of music as capable of transporting the listener into an ideal, liberating, assuaging realm:

If we are in a general way permitted to regard human activity in the realm of the beautiful as a liberation of the soul, as a release from constraint and restriction, in short to consider that art does actually alleviate the most overpowering and tragic catastrophes by means of the creations it offers to our contemplation and enjoyment, it is the art of music which conducts us to the final summit of that ascent to freedom.28

Variations of this idealistic mystification of music emerge in the writings of E.T. A. Hoffmann, Schopenhauer, and various other philosophers and writers of the early nineteenth century, many of them German.29 On the other hand, influential French social philosophers of the time, notably the disciples of Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825), advocated for the use of music as a “civilizing” force and as an aid toward social transformation, evincing a desire to harness music’s alleged idealistic powers to work for the concrete benefit of society.30

Romantic idealist thought—as reflected in the idea that music is a liberating, unifying, civilizing force—blossoms in distinctive ways in the performance aesthetics of the influential nineteenth-century European artists Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. This topic, which I have explored in detail elsewhere,31 merits a brief reprisal, as the beliefs of these artists illustrate two aesthetic offshoots of Romantic idealism that linger in contemporary American musical thought.32 Building directly on the socio-aesthetics of Saint-Simon and other French social writers,33 Liszt became an advocate of music education precisely on the grounds that he considered music “a civilizing deity”34 and artists the essential priests for being capable of hearing “the eternal, harmonious music whose cadence regulates the universe ….”35 In a public essay he titled On the Position of Artists and Their Place in Society, Liszt actively called for a widespread institutionalization of musical practice—the establishment of institutional concerts, musical education infrastructure, philharmonic societies, and inexpensive editions of musical works, among other things—all in the name of “musicians, of art, and of social progress.” 36 In this respect, Liszt’s aesthetic resonance with the philosophical position of the Saint-Simonians is apparent; Ralph Locke, in particular, calls attention to the emphasis Saint-Simonians placed on the “emotional power unique to music,”37 defining their view of art in terms of its social role and the belief in “the power of art to influence the behavior of its audience in desirable ways, and especially to stir their enthusiasm for the work that needs to be done if society is to advance.”38 More specifically, I have argued that Liszt valued musical works not as aesthetic ends, but as vehicles of performative power, believing that it was through the ecstasy and suspension of performance and the boundary-less feeling of community (what I have called the merging moment), that emotional infinity could perhaps generate concrete social justice.39

By contrast, contemporaneous reviews of Clara Schumann’s performances and statements from her students indicate that her goal as the public performer was to offer the werktreue, the “faithful” work, which consisted of the “correct,” impassive interpretation.40 Nevertheless, Clara Schumann treasured the moments of “self-forgetfulness”41 when she lost herself in the study, composition, and practice of music.

How softly and majestically the bass moves, like a noble personage, à la Bach, and the second theme begins so woefully (the mere sound moves one quite strangely), and then weaves itself so intimately into the other parts. … The ff later on is very fine and also the way it gradually subsides, while the whole of the transition into A Flat major, the horn, the new theme, the liquid organ point, and the entrance of the viola with the first theme again, and the crescendo up to the G major—how glorious it all is! But from there onwards it transports one to heaven.”42

Emotionally charged passages such as this, which analyze musical elements as quasi-living structural tissue and the work itself as an agent of transcendental escape, are ubiquitous in her correspondence with Brahms. I have thus argued that Schumann’s private emotional persona and her public, rigorous veneer are not mutually contradictory, and that her protective attitude toward the integrity of the musical work emanates from a deep emotional attachment to the same works. From this perspective, Schumann emerges as an artist with a missionary zeal to share the entity that afforded her with liberating moments of intense emotional experience.43

In revisiting Liszt and Schumann’s performative aesthetics, I am not only revisiting a philosophical milieu that was deeply influential in the U.S. academy,44 but also proposing them as heuristic models that represent two distinct, yet interrelated ways of imagining music’s power.45 These models are useful because they point to distinctive ways of idealizing music, ways that are today still deeply reflected in their adherents’ affective musical attachments.46 Liszt favored a broad variety of repertoires and pianistic practices, prioritizing the public merging moment of artist with audience, and ultimately, using musical works as means, not ends. Schumann treasured the private merging moment with musical works; on stage, she sought to protect the work’s alleged autonomy, identity, and transcending powers, in great part by understating her performative persona and by favoring a narrow body of repertoire. Liszt imagines music-making as the essential ingredient in the recipe for a utopian society; for Schumann, the musical work itself is a micro-utopia, an intimate partner, an assuaging, healing entity.47 The differences between these two models of idealism are subtle, but so significant, they drove Schumann and Liszt to cultivate one of the most notorious enmities of the era. These two shades of idealism were eventually quietly synthesized in our institutional values and practices.

Neo-Idealism in the Aesthetics of the U.S. Academy

Toward the turn of the twentieth-century, rhetoric emanating from personalities associated with the emerging music academic institutions in the U.S. points toward a positivistic48 regard for musical masterworks as vehicles toward the intellectual legitimization of music. A subsequent formalist orientation where the alleged scientific study of music requires a pedagogical and analytical focus on the musical work’s structure has been widely recognized, and critiqued.49 Nevertheless, one finds in much of the historical rhetoric a deep regard for emotional dimension of musical experience, even as the philosophical veneer exalts the centrality of intellectual pursuit. For example, the influence of German aesthetics 50 —from early idealism to Hanslicknian thought—is evident in the writings of influential Boston critic John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893).51 “Music is finer than speech, and makes its appeal to a deeper somewhat in us ….” Not just any music, but “the presence of good music is the presence of a good spirit … the presence of the deep and earnest spirit who composed it ….” Handel, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven are immediately identified as such spirits.52 Nevertheless, Dwight was not merely adopting German aesthetics, but merging them with philosophical motivations rooted in the religious and political sensitivities of his milieu. Only two months earlier, his article titled “Music as Means of Culture” had declared that “the love for the highest kind of music” came to this country with the “conquering ideas” of “spiritual freedom, of self-reliance, of the dignity of human nature, of the insignificance of creeds compared with life and practice, of social justice ….”53 Dwight, moreover, sees the “respect for music” that accompanied these ideas as “leavening, refining, humanizing our too crude and swaggering young democratic civilization.”54 A good portion of “Music as Means of Culture” advocates a Lisztian utopianism, through performed music and concerts that would establish a “gentler harmonizing, humanizing culture” and that above all, would educate the masses into the “divine idea of unity.” But the essay closes with an unmistakable Schumannesque touch, one he clearly favors: it is the private moment with music—far from the concert hall—that “lends secret sympathy, relief, expression, to all one’s moods, loves, longings, sorrows ….” and having undergone this experience, the habitual listener will then belong “to the harmonic and anointed body-guard of peace, fraternity, good will … the infinitesimal atoms of his being, have got magnetized, as it were, into a loyal, positive direction toward the pole-star of unity.”55 Indeed, the controversial U.S. critic Harold Schonberg grasped the historical dynamics of Germanic influence by alluding to the first half of the twentieth-century’s feuds between the “virtuosi” (of Liszt’s brand) and the “priests” (of Schumann’s) and advancing a verdict: “Clara Schumann, after all, had eventually triumphed; and how she must have laughed from Above!”56

W. S. B. Mathews’s 1888 music appreciation text exemplifies the neo-idealistic trend in the U.S. as well. For him, musical “masterworks” are vehicles for the contemplation of the “Ideal” and the “Divine,” which involve, among other things, the spiritual grasp of “unity,” “repose,” “and infinity.” Musical “art,” in its highest stage, can serve this purpose; “low or debase art” (such as that of Strauss and Gounod, in his view) cannot.57 The influence of writers like Dwight and Mathews reaches well into the twentieth century; in 1976, composer and critic Richard Franko Goldman, writing for College Music Symposium, explicitly refers to the “German idealist philosophers,” and to “many others since” when declaring: “We must think of music, and of art in general, not in terms of history or anthropology, but in terms of esthetic experience and intellectual or even moral values.”58 He proceeds to identify the repertoire of art music to which he is alluding—“Western music, of the period from about 1600 to about 1900”—as representing “one of the greatest achievements of human genius,” as the most important “manifestation of musical art” in any time or place,59 and as the vehicle toward “becoming civilized ….” Goldman’s regard for the affective dimension of musical experience is in no way compromised. After declaring that “[t]he ‘object,’ or the work of art, is more important than its history” he asks whether it is more important “to be able to give the correct dates for the artist ” or “to be able to say, quite simply, ‘How beautiful and how moving!’ and to realize that the work, even if ever so slightly, has changed our lives, our way of looking at things, of understanding ourselves and our aspirations?”60

One could argue that the prose and the values just described represent a dwindling academic aesthetic whose historical contingency on the socio-religious context of the northeastern U.S. has now been recognized. Yet, the kindred, albeit nuanced perspectives of recent and prominent voices indicate these values still carry considerable impetus. Musicologist Lawrence Kramer, for example, places the unique expressive identity of music on its “emotional power,” openly rejecting the “tradition that tells us to listen to classical works for their own sake alone” and the assumption that “classical music has a patent on authenticity or idealism ….”61 Indeed, Kramer is no transcendentalist; for him, classical music “has imagined forms of experience that became substantial realities in being thus imagined: forms of being, becoming, sensing, witnessing, remembering, desiring, hoping, suffering, and more.” Classical music’s power is thus exceptionalized:

It is the power by which we make the world meaningful. Its felt presence is the reason why we keep coming back to the works and styles through which that power runs: coming back to them as sources of pleasure and puzzlement, of self-discover and self-bafflement. Other music also has things to say to us; there is no doubt about that. But no other music tells us the things that this music does. The Western world is not only the richer for preserving Sophocles’ Antigone or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but different.62

Kramer’s ontology of music as an “imagined form of experience” ultimately seems to lead the listener, not to a transcendental realm, but “to the metaphorical space that the music and the listener can occupy together.”63 How this metaphorical space generates a closer bonding with the world is a matter that Kramer addresses mostly in metaphorical terms. Rather than weakening it, this tautology seems to add esoteric appeal to Kramer’s elusive brand of neo-idealism.

In her assessment of El Sistema’s practices, Melissa Lesniak expresses concern about the “repetition of repertoire, year after year.” She states, “American music teachers generally support giving students the opportunity to experience a vast array of repertoire and musical genres.”64 Indeed, my own past experience in the pedagogical arena in the U.S. attests to a rich body of pre-college literature that draws from a variety of musical traditions, including blues and jazz. Yet, it is interesting to note that there seems to be a college-level aesthetic shift, a tacit understanding that once we decide to become professional musicians, we also learn to make a distinction between serious music and other musics. The prominent position that canonical repertoire still enjoys in college-level curriculum correlates with this line of thought. Consider also the following rhetoric, from the Boston Conservatory’s “Welcome Address,” written by pianist (and Director of the Music Division, at the time) Karl Paulnack:

I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re wasting your SAT scores!” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they loved music: they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment.65

Paulnack proceeds to explain how (serious) music “really works”: music is the study of “relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.” If the study of music entails a reconstruction of the relationships of its inner elements, then it follows, in his estimation, that in the process of such study, music manages to reorganize and heal our own internal chaos. Paulnack, in short, appears to treasure the intimate aesthetic relationship between the listener and the musical work. However, the speech closes with a missionary call of Lisztian public dimension: “I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. … I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.66

The speech has circulated widely throughout the virtual world and it has allegedly been translated into a number of languages. This massive and enthusiastic response points to the sway this brand of neo-idealism enjoys. Particularly illuminating is a thread that followed the solitary critical assessment of the speech by composer and theorist Lane Harder. In an extended response, Harder scrutinized Paulnack’s arguments logically and historically, taking him to task for, among other things, unduly denigrating music’s role as entertainment and ascribing to music a quasi-mystical power for the good. The counter-response to Harder was unforgiving: he was accused of “sucking the fresh air out of the room” and of displaying an “empty and poisonous attitude,” among other things.67 Ultimately, this cyber exchange is revealing of the very much alive and widely embraced belief in (some) music’s unique powers and of the precarious position in which those who dare to challenge it may find themselves.

I have focused on just a few of the prominent voices that have and continue to champion various shades of neo-idealism. Two common aesthetic tendencies are apparent within these variegated shades: First, a Schumannesque engagement with selected masterworks, one that favors a merging of music and individual and that has found a comfortable space to thrive in under the intellectual veneer of academia; and second, a remarkable tendency to teleologically synthesize Schumann’s preference for aesthetic intimacy and repertoire selectivity with the socio-utopian aspects of Liszt’s model. This tendency privileges a particularly body of repertoire—on both analytical and performative spheres—on account of its unique powers to civilize, to humanize, to make the world meaningful, to bring harmony, peace, and equality. The micro-utopia is thus believed to generate the societal utopia.

While in the U.S., a Schumannesque neo-idealistic aesthetic seems to have assimilated aspects of the Lisztian one, in Venezuela, José Antonio Abreu has succeeded in constructing a socio-musical movement that thrives on ideas of fundamentally Lisztian nature. On the surface, Abreu’s rhetoric does not differ greatly from that of some U.S. academics. Indeed, he vehemently asserts that “those who generate musical harmony” are capable of “knowing” “essential harmony” and “human harmony.”68 “The fact that music expresses the ineffable … makes it immensely accessible to the profound sensibility. … it penetrates more deeply in the human being than any other art.”69 However, the similarities end at the rhetorical level. El Sistema’s position toward classical music is ambiguous, as exemplified in the projects organized by the program’s most famous graduate, Gustavo Dudamel. After successfully deploying his Mahler Project70 (conducting all of Mahler’s symphonies with the LA Philharmonic and the SBYO in both countries over a span of approximately four weeks), he launched another massive affair, the summer festival Americas & Americans. The festival brought together the LA Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Juan Luis Guerra, Ruben Blades, and a host of other popular music artists.71 The expense and dimension of the Mahler festival provided solid inspiration for El Sistema followers who uphold the European symphonic tradition. Yet, the festival Americas & Americans openly proclaimed Dudamel’s explicit agenda of “disassembling what he regards as antiquated and classist notions of elite culture versus popular culture.”72 As I will discuss in more detail in the next section, Abreu also allows El Sistema to pragmatically seek fulfillment in both classical repertoire and vernacular musical language, and some ensembles to expand in definition away from the symphonic tradition. El Sistema, in Lisztian fashion, utilizes musical works as means to a social end, and seeks to elevate the communal, performative, ecstatic merging zone. Nevertheless the international media and individuals have found in El Sistema fulfilling experiences that ultimately appear congruent with a Schumannesque neo-idealism. El Sistema’s ultimate ambiguity, therefore, demands closer scrutiny.

Music and Power in the Neo-Idealistic Image of El Sistema

Even as they pride themselves in offering products of non-fictional objectivity, documentary film directors have acted as powerful storytellers and architects of the international image of El Sistema. Paul Smaczny and Maria Stodtmeier’s 2009 Music to Change Life: El Sistema, is the most recent of these films. At the outset, Dudamel offers a statement of values rooted on the ideas of family and patriotism, amidst images of students performing an orchestral version of “Alma Llanera,” a song widely considered to be Venezuela’s second national hymn: “El Sistema is a family, a gigantic family that has a father, a head, which is maestro José Antonio Abreu, who has given us his life; he has given us this idea that has changed Venezuela.”73 Allusions to classical music or to musical style per se are notably absent in this film. Rather, the film-makers place emphasis on Abreu’s utilitarian musical philosophy, one that he has rendered in writing elsewhere: “In their very essence, orchestras and choirs constitute, in effect, much more than artistic structures, and ultimately, the youth orchestras and choirs are insuperable models and schools of social life.”74 In Abreu’s view, the orchestra and the choir are means for creating a solidarity that manifests itself both in concrete social bonds among children and young people and in a broader—and more abstract—notion of LatinoAmericanism:

Now we are battling in the art arena to join new generations, these children in all of Latin America, under the ideal of music toward a continent that would be what the libertador Simon Bolivar wanted, the very hope of the world, and music is that, happiness, peace, hope, integration, strength, infinite energy.75

The repertoire featured in the documentary as a whole supports this initial statement of Latin American integration. By the end, the viewer has heard and seen performed excerpts of music from Pedro [Elías] Gutiérrez, Pérez Prado, Arturo Márquez, Félix Mendoza, Astor Piazolla, and Alberto Ginastera, among several other Latin American composers. Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Bernstein represent a minority of non-Latin American composers on the soundtrack.76

Music to Change Life also focuses on a narrower sense of Venezuelan identity, articulated through the statements of its founders and members. Frank di Polo, for example, essentializes Venezuelans as a people of unbridled generosity, who wanting to share everything share music in the same way.77 Abreu himself interjects that “everybody in Venezuela loves music, loves dance, singing, popular music and academic music” alike.78 The documentary producers ensure that an overall panorama of local flavor pervades the performances, showing plentiful footage of El Sistema instructors teaching kids through the use of both symphonic and folk instruments. Concert footage also focuses on performances where the musicians blend symphonic instruments with Afro-Caribbean percussion, where the performers and audience dance and interact with each other, and where the concert hall is seldom the quiet contemplative space more often encountered in the U.S. and Europe. “We make music very differently than it is done yonder,” says one of the instructors.79 In short, Music to Change Life paints a social phenomenon where the medium of the orchestra is utilized as a tool of political and social invention, as a canvas where musical styles are blended, and as a musical apparatus appropriated from the distant and often idealized Europe. This apparatus—the symphony orchestra—is Lationamericanized and revitalized in the hands of a non-European youth force. But the keen observer will catch glimpses of El Sistema’s rehearsal spaces, the walls covered with pictures of Bach, Vivaldi, and Beethoven.80 Such images point to El Sistema’s close ties to what the average music academic in the U.S. considers classical music.

Two older documentaries, The Promise of Music (2008) and Tocar y Luchar (2006), build on El Sistema’s relationships with canonic classical repertoire. In the former, Enrique Sanchez Lansch follows the youth orchestra as it prepares for its first performance at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, Germany. Dudamel and several of the young members of the orchestra discuss the challenge of playing Beethoven within such proximity of one of the cradles of symphonic music. It becomes evident that the young people feel they represent Venezuela and that they are proving themselves to the German public and the international community. The children and Dudamel comment on the energy with which they play their instruments, as if wanting to use such instruments as tools of empowerment.81 The notion of symphonic practice as capable of creating a transcending social space is also invoked: “Here skin color or religious creed do not matter; music brings us together.”82 The general aesthetic line of thought that emerges is one that idealizes symphonic practice as a universal musical craft, one that the kids in El Sistema exploit in order to escape, if momentarily, the limitations of their socio-economic status. And the editorial reviews proclaim: “Following different young musicians in their day-to-day lives, the film shows how classical music has the capability of changing both the individual and their environment.”83 Indeed, the documentary minimizes popular and folk music, instead juxtaposing Beethoven’s music with images of poverty around the city of Caracas.

Tocar y Luchar (2006), the oldest full-length documentary on El Sistema, features extended footage of Abreu articulating a neo-idealistic philosophy that resonates with both Germanic and French nineteenth century idealism: “Rhythm is not a musical phenomenon, but a spiritual one. … It is the art of attaining a concert among wills, souls, and spirits … in that young person, penetrated by music, challenged by musical discourse and by the toil of the orchestra, begins to change psychologically.”84 A notable scene shows the reunited founders of El Sistema’s first orchestra trying to explain the emotional source of the energy and power that seems to emanate from the Youth Orchestra’s performances.85 The juxtaposition of images of poverty and rural landscapes featuring 86 with the sounds of canonic classical pieces is particularly salient. With its emphasis on the notion of salvation through music, Tocar y Luchar infuses El Sistema’s international image with a mystical aura that many interpret as the proof of the power of classical music to elevate the human spirit. The sponsors of the documentary, which at the time of release included FESNOJIV and Abreu himself, supported this view. The editorial description on the jacket of the released DVD is particularly notable in this respect: “Once a modest program designed to expose rural children to the wonders of music, the system has become one of the most important and beautiful social phenomena in modern history.”

Statements such as the ones quoted above, along with the aural-visual juxtaposition in all three documentaries of poor, non-Anglo children with symphonic practice have contributed significantly to the general image of El Sistema as a miraculous phenomenon. However, all three documentaries are essentially a-historical, and the editorial review cited above implies a false historical trajectory. And yet, these films reveal the lingering dilemma that many non-Germanic musical cultures began facing in the late nineteenth century, especially in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. This dilemma pits local musical practice against the pressure to be internationally relevant, to enter the so deemed universal arena of symphonic music. I have addressed this topic at length elsewhere,87 along with the pre-history of El Sistema, but a short summary of that study is necessary here.

The first orchestra of El Sistema, the Orquesta Nacional Juvenil Juan José Landaeta, was not a rural program; it was very much an urban happening, the brainchild of Abreu and a group of middle-class musicians. Nor was this the first youth orchestra in Venezuela; it came on the tail of a youth orchestra movement initially fostered by Pedro Antonio Ríos Reyna and by other musicians associated with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela (OSV).88 Abreu himself was forged as a conductor within the trenches of the OSV, and in the perception of his contemporaries, filled the vacuum left by Reyna’s unexpected death. Although the OSV has been openly maligned in the historical perceptions of El Sistema agents as an “elitist,” “foreign-dominated” ensemble, the orchestra was simply enacting a historical trajectory similar to that of professional orchestras in the U.S.: in the process of growing its own roots, it relied heavily on immigrant and international musicians at particular stages of its development. More distinctively, the OSV itself was established (in the 1930s) by Venezuelans who saw it as a necessary step toward modernization, toward the “cultural education” of the masses, and toward providing a performative vehicle for Venezuelan and Latin American composers to explore their national identities. Their arguments, burgeoning in a musical culture strongly influenced by French nineteenth-century culture, are tinted with a Lisztian brand of idealism, while their proselytization on behalf of what they termed la buena música89 appears concomitant with the attitudes of Matthews and other U.S. music academics. A marked preoccupation with Venezuelan identity, an embrace of vernacular musics, and less pronounced religious undertones, on the other hand, decidedly distinguish their aesthetic search from that of U.S. past academics.90

As I have argued, it is necessary to consider El Sistema’s aesthetic motivations within the historical framework created by the aesthetic anxieties of twentieth-century Venezuelan academic musicians. These anxieties are still present, and permeate the media image of El Sistema, allowing it to operate with a chameleon identity of sorts. For all purposes, El Sistema appears to be a program of symphonic education that supports the classical canon, but finds no contradiction in enthusiastically embracing popular and dance music. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between how this chameleon image emanates from the documentaries and how El Sistema agents articulate the program’s goals and values.

El Sistema operatives who explicitly exceptionalize classical music are rare; notably, Raphael Elster (see the opening of this paper) has acted as an international liaison, partly because he was educated in the U.S. and speaks English.91 But Abreu’s position in numerous oral statements, as well as in his one written document, clearly aligns itself with an idealization of orchestral practice, not classical repertoire. For him, ensembles are “far more than artistic structures,” they are “insuperable models and schools of social life.” Ensemble practice requires “a will of perfection and yearning for excellence” and “a rigorous discipline of accordance,” among other things.92 Elsewhere I have called attention to his “mistranslation” of Rattle’s famous 2005 statement. The latter’s words were, verbatim: “If anybody asked me, where is there something really important going on for the future of classical music, I would simply have to say, here in Venezuela.”93 Abreu’s public translation was, verbatim: “If anybody asked me, where is there something really important going on for the future of music, I would simply have to say, here in Venezuela.”94 This apparently circumstantial piece of evidence might become more compelling when one takes into consideration Gustavo Dudamel’s explicit agenda in the 2012 Hollywood Bowl Festival Americas & Americans.95 In this respect, the web statement regarding music as an integral art is supported by documentation in the archives of the SBYO in Caracas:

The Venezuelan orchestral phenomenon is overcoming the false dilemma posed between popular music and academic music, since it incorporates both in the weekly concert repertoire offered in various towns and cities of the country. This has permitted the so called “classical music” to be known and experienced in a natural and spontaneous manner, assimilating it into the cultural repertoire of our people, and reaffirming its universal language. In the same way, our popular music is being enriched with the possibility of becoming symphonic, permitting its sounds and rhythms to be expressed in multicolor timbres, on account of the rich instrumental spectrum of the orchestra.”96

The statement reflects El Sistema’s self-promotion as a force in the dislocation of the dichotomy between classical and popular music, an agenda that resonates with Dudamel’s own. Yet, concurrently, it reveals a deep regard for symphonic practice, clearly seeing it as the enriching party in the equation. Classical music, moreover, is stripped of its idealized robes only to acquire the aura of the universal. But in a significant twist of identity empowerment and self-validation, reaffirming such universallanguage is interpreted in equal terms with the assimilation of this language into the cultural repertoire of the Venezuelan people. Statements such as this compellingly illustrate how El Sistema seeks the synthesis and reconciliation of classical music and popular music, of the universal and the local. In historical context, this is an example of how it negotiates the cultural anxieties inherited from the early twentieth-century musical establishment in Venezuela, and most importantly, how this negotiation precipitates the cultural and ideological emancipation of the symphony orchestra from its canonized, European repertoire.

The paradox of how El Sistema both idealizes symphonic practice and rejects the dichotomy between the classical and the popular is not necessarily resolved by scrutinizing the concert programs in the archives of the organization. A systematic study of such data is yet to be accomplished, but a two-day intense “finger browsing” over hundreds of programs at the Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño Theatre Archives in Caracas, renders a perception consistent with the best-known critiques of El Sistema's apparent favoring of European standard repertoire.97 A significant number of programs point to the central place of Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky in the concert repertoire of the youth orchestras and the chamber groups, and especially salient are large-scale international affairs such as the Festival Amadeus in 2001and the Festival Beethoven in 2003. Each of these lasted several days and focused on the most standard of classical repertoires; the Festival Beethoven found itself responding to the challenge of "how to transmit and transcend the musical language of the Maestro.”98 At the same time, not a small number of programs, especially since the 2000s, point to a concert life that capitalizes on smaller groups who bring together academic, folk, and popular musical discourse in novel ways. Of these, the April 6, 2008 concert by Pabellón sin baranda is an example; as reflected in the program, the group brought together vocals, flute, cello, clarinet, bass flute, and marimba, with Venezuelan instruments such as the cuatro, the arpa llanera, and the maracas. The selections included merengues, joropos, and valses Venezolanos, as well as an arrangement of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.99 Trained within or involved in the trenches of El Sistema, many of these musicians evince a tendency toward the cultivation of hybrid musical idioms and ensembles outside the tradition of the large symphonic groups. However, it seems evident that many of these concerts are sponsored by El Sistema, but the ensembles themselves do not directly function as part of the program; they are simply thriving in the syncretic musical panorama of Venezuela, one that long predates the existence of El Sistema. The experimental ensembles and curriculum pursued by the Conservatorio de Música Simón Bolívar are also of great interest,100 although little other documentation points toward such ensembles being truly consolidated in the overall national infrastructure of the program.101

It is well known that El Sistema núcleos adhere to a core repertoire consisting largely of key works by Mozart, Vivaldi, and Tchaikovsky, among others, a fact that also causes a great deal of puzzlement. Tunstall, for example, responds to Lesniak’s concern for the program’s “repetition of repertoire” as follows: “if children are immersed in a masterwork at a young age, they learn early to identify with it and feel themselves a valued part of its re-creation through ensemble effort and teamwork.”102 Tunstall stresses the value of repeating symphonic masterpieces by contextualizing this practice in relation to what she sees as the program’s community-centered, non-professional goals. One can identify a Schummanesque air in this proposition: the notion that the children forge a personal relationship with the masterwork and that the self-esteem growth occurs through the collective activity of re-creating the valued masterpiece. At the same time, as I have already stressed, Abreu emphasizes the rudiments of ensemble practice as the protagonists of the transformative equation; although his statements are usually found in fragments of interviews, one of the most complete versions of his philosophy appears in the transcript of an interview he granted to María Elena Ramos in Caracas, in 2008. Abreu refers to nationalistic values—“It is incredible how the country [Venezuela] is felt in the orchestra”—and offers detailed analyses of how tuning and competitiveness create a sense of collective value. When Ramos asks about the “preference for certain authors in the initial stages,” Abreu identifies and justifies Mozart, “for the enormous technical difficulty it implies for the strings,” and Tchaikovsky, “because of his mastery in orchestration,” his “confluence of romantic and contemporary orchestration.”103 One must then re-emphasize that Abreu’s overall rhetoric resonates with a Lisztian idealism; an idealization of masterpieces—and the very use of the masterpiece concept—is absent; Mozart and Tchaikovsky are both appreciated as vehicles—not ends, and for far more pragmatic reasons than those reflected in Tunstall’s statements.

Albeit the complex socio-aesthetic vision reflected in the films and documentation I have discussed, the centrality of symphonic practice and its core repertoire continue to lend El Sistema an aesthetic veneer that does not allow it to escape the international lens which sees it in the context of the classical masterpiece revival. Although the program seeks a regionally adaptive methodological approach104 with the use of cuatros, maracas, and other local instruments and musics, a systematic documentation of the actual fulfillment of this vision is yet to be produced. Moreover, El Sistema’s touring flagship groups—those that act as international ambassadors—consist mostly of large, conventional symphonic ensembles. These ensembles are unequivocally grounded on standard European symphonic repertoire, even as they cultivate a recurring set of works by Venezuelan and Latin American composers.105 Whether intended or not, this trend helps them build a dialogue with the world scene and allows them to fulfill the parameters of the international communities’ definition of classical music and its regard for the alleged inherent value of masterpieces.

In summary, film documentaries on El Sistema reveal the underpinnings of a historical impulse that seeks to integrate the “universal” with the “local.” Written statements and repertoire choices present additional evidence that the individuals within the program negotiate the weight of an idealized classical repertoire with their love for vernacular and popular musics, their desire to be internationally relevant with the drive to be nationalistically unique. The historical and cultural realities that surround El Sistema inform a complex and fluid neo-idealism that pragmatically exceptionalizes the symphony orchestra, unavoidably cultivates canonic classical repertoire, and deliberately seeks to adapt to regional social spaces through vernacular repertoires and hybrid ensembles. Undoubtedly, these vernacular social spaces push against the very same ideological impulses that gave birth to El Sistema in the first place, and force it into a state of “being, not yet being,” in Abreu’s attributed own words.106 “There is no ‘system,’” he allegedly says; all El Sistema seeks is “to create a small chaos that will eventually lead to order.”107

Ideological Sublimation in The “Power of Music” Banner

Media writers in the U.S. have responded to the chameleon image of El Sistema with widely contrasting pieces. Consider, for example, NPR’s “Using Music to Mentor Venezuela’s Poorest Youth”108 and The Christian Science Monitor’s “El Sistema Taps the Power of Classical Music to Help US Children Flourish.”109 The NPR piece emphasizes El Sistema’s familiar role in giving children a social space within which to exist and thrive, and the sound file attached to the article contains the now famous Fuga con Pajarillo (by Venezuelan composer Aldemaro Romero). In addition, alluding to the popular series of mambos (from Perez Prado’s to Bernstein’s) that are part of the standard repertoire of El Sistema, instructor Andres Gonzalez says: “We think that music doesn't have to be boring …. We don't need to be sitting down, all serious. And mambo isn't meant to be heard sitting down, much less to be all serious. None of that—we're going to have fun.”110 In stark contrast, the title of the CSM piece openly reflects an emphasis on the notion that classical music is at the center of the program’s success. Conspicuous is the author’s choice to quote one of the students in the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, one of the entities inspired by El Sistema:

"Music is pretty much my life to me, my career, and it livens up every day,” says 11-year-old Joshua Lewis, who plays the viola. Today's popular music is “OK,” he says, but he prefers classical music because it's “pretty much like the origin of where music came from. And I like the rhythm and how it comes out.111

Joshua’s candid statement points not merely to a personal preference but to a nascent idealization of classical music as “the origin” of music. (See the discussion in note 95 of this paper and compare Joshua’s position to Dudamel’s idealization of folk music as “the origin of all music.”)

The CSM piece brings us full circle to recognition of the neo-idealistic rhetoric favored in prominent circles of the U.S. academy and in Tunstall’s book. In the prelude to Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, Tunstall clearly expresses her aesthetic inclinations:

Classical music, in particular, is so culturally marginalized as to be barely present, even as ambience, in most people’s lives. Among my beginning piano students, it is rare to encounter a child whose experience extends beyond the tune of the “Ode to Joy” and the first few notes of Für Elise. For music teachers who value the incomparably rich artistic and expressive power of classical music, challenging this massive cultural amnesia can feel like an uphill battle.112

Further on she elaborates on her sense of despair in the face of what she perceives as a massive cultural neglect of “music as a vital and autonomous art form”:

For many of these children, music barely exists as something to be encountered and appreciated on its own terms; it is a groove or “beat” half-heard while watching a movie or television show. … It seems to me that the advent of the iPod and the mp3 file, rather than reversing this development, has accelerated it. … How can a piano teacher, or a music teacher of any kind, lead young people toward the possibility of putting their multi tasking on pause, and simply, deeply, paying attention to music?113

An interesting paradox emerges in the following chapter, as she recounts with superb detail her experience of Dudamel’s 2009 debut at the Hollywood bowl. Her words bring to life the celebratory atmosphere of the event, and the reader nearly experiences the throngs of people arriving at the bowl accompanied by soundbites of salsa music and stopping at the concession stands for tacos. The opening numbers include the Silverlake Conservatory group performing a Stevie Wonder medley and Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) showing off at the electric guitar. Somewhere around are David Hidalgo (from Los Lobos) and Taj Mahal. Consequently, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and her prose bursts with images of camaraderie, ecstasy, and subversion of concert etiquette, as the audience spontaneously erupts in applause and screams in between the movements of the symphony. The concert ends with an encore of the fugato section of the 4th movement, this time with fire works; and she whispers to the reader, “I can’t help but wonder about the purists in the crowd tonight.”114 Her narrative is striking because it recounts a performance of classical music that resembles a conventional classical concert in virtually no points. The open-air amphitheater, the opening bands, the amplified instruments and fireworks, all point, not to the contemplative, Schumannesque space that lends itself to deep listening of autonomous musical works, but rather to the ecstatic space one would find in a Liszt recital or in a popular music concert. Tunstall adds to her account the anecdote of a next-day press conference where a reporter asked Dudamel what was on his iPod; “Oscar d’Leon and Pasion Vega, Juan Luis Guerra, Johnny Pacheco …”115 was presumably his answer. Dudamel, thus, by her own account, reveals himself as a user of the arriviste iPod and an avid collector of salsa, bachata, Spanish pop, and merengue. Like the 60 Minutes producers, Tunstall has been caught in the aesthetic paradox in which El Sistema and its artists place those who consider themselves classical music lovers and defenders. After her vivid account of the 2009 Hollywood debut, Tunstall confesses: “it seems to me that high art and popular culture have made peace tonight in a way I’ve never experienced before.”116 While El Sistema and Dudamel seek an ambitious dismantling of the classical/popular dichotomy, Tunstall embraces the dichotomy, seeing Dudamel as the bringer of a temporary truce.

It is important to reiterate that Tunstall’s book does convey the complex cultural and musical phenomenon that El Sistema is. The diversity of the núcleos’ practices and the inclusion of folk music in the repertoire, the multifarious views of El Sistema’s agents, the fine line that the orchestras sometimes tread between popular and classical musical discourse, all come across vividly in her prose. Most notably, in discussing how El Sistema in the U.S. would look different from El Sistema in Venezuela, she manifests a certain awareness of the issues I have identified: She maintains that the Venezuelan system is “centralized,” whereas the emerging programs in the U.S. are “arising spontaneously through autonomous self-invention, and finding a wide variety of ways to grow and sustain themselves.” El Sistema in Venezuela has “balanced its classical orchestra orientation with an exploration of Venezuelan traditional and folk music,” she states, proposing that U.S. programs might want to do the same, and implying that traditional music education in the U.S. has not. Surprisingly, she concludes that “these are relatively minor differences,”117 an assessment that ends up obliterating a much needed confrontation between the aesthetic and functional values of El Sistema and those of the program’s admirers in the U.S.

Tunstall ends the book envisioning an “El Sistema USA movement grown so large and strong that a national youth orchestra emerges, and makes its debut at Carnegie Hall …. [And] three or four or five orchestras of children and teenagers in the ghettos and forgotten neighborhoods of every city in the United States, working and playing together … and discovering the ‘huge spiritual world,’ as Abreu says, that music produces in itself, and that ends up overcoming material poverty.”118 We might wonder whether this vision seeks to emulate the more controversial aspects of El Sistema in Venezuela: An institutional power of national dimension, an unbalanced focus on the symphony orchestra, and a utopian social justification for both. We may also pose the question: What repertoire would an El Sistema USA national orchestra and network of orchestras favor? The reader cannot escape Changing Lives’ overall neo-idealistic values. After an introduction that unequivocally positions the author as a classical music exceptionalist, the rest of the book implies a regard for the doctrine of the masterwork’s preeminence, of a higher music, a trend reflected in her numerous references to European masterpieces and the music of the great masters. Interesting as well is her consistency in bestowing the epithet of master and masterpiece on European canonical repertoire, but not on Latin American composers or works.119 This tendency evinces, in clear contradistinction to the Venezuelan vision, an aesthetic position that is reluctant to split the symphony orchestra from its canonized repertoire, that is, to consider the symphony orchestra as just an ensemble, rather than the epitomic vehicle for the re-creation of (European) masterpieces. It also points to a well-established Schumannesque neo-idealism, one that embraces a selective box of works that will not be open to new additions lest the identity of such entities as masterpieces is violated. One must wonder if El Sistema USA can identify and challenge the impetus of its own historic-aesthetic context, or if it will ultimately incite a re-canonization of classical repertoire.

With an introduction that exceptionalizes classical music, and a closing vision of symphony orchestras propelling a discovery of a “spiritual world that ends up overcoming material poverty,” Changing Lives exhibits the teleological tendencies I have identified in the neo-idealism of the U.S. academy. El Sistema appears to provide the proof of that which classical music idealists have always secretly believed: that these works must be preserved because they have inherent, transformational powers that can impact society at various levels. The words of Mark Churchill, founder of El Sistema’s Fellows programs in the U.S., are similarly revealing:

As a freshman at NEC, we used to take these long walks through the night, struggling with the problem of elitism in classical music,’’ he recalled. “It seemed like an activity for the privileged few. Of course it was the 1960s and we were all wanting to save the world. So we wondered why we were pursuing a field like classical music, and a lot of people stopped pursuing it. I didn’t. I held out a hope that something like El Sistema could exist. I poked at it for years, and when I saw that it could exist and did exist, it was a kind of arrival. It seems like almost everything I’ve done has led up to this.’’120

Liszt’s ambitious socio-musical utopianism drove him to epitomize musical activity as the catalyst for social reform. In the process, he alienated Schumann, who considered his performances near dismemberments of her beloved, assuaging musical work-partners. Indeed, they became each other’s nemeses, their feud later ideologically sublimated in some of our most enduring institutional values. Today, Liszt’s vision once more acquires compelling public impetus through El Sistema’s socio-musical profile, and most particularly, through the performances of its orchestras. The ecstasy and energy provoked by performances of the SBYO in particular—seems to suspend all philosophical fineries. El Sistema has created a merging performative space where a significant number of classical music lovers in the U.S. have found a satisfying aesthetic experience, some declaring that the SBYO makes them feel “like part of a movement.”121 In these performances, Venezuelan youths see themselves empowered through orchestral practice, in their identities as Venezuelans, in their self-esteem as members of a group where race and class are irrelevant, and not least of all, in their success as competitive musicians. U.S. classical music lovers see that empowerment as proof of the inherent power of classical masterpieces and as validation of the emotional and intellectual relationships they have forged with these repertoires. In this cultural exchange, the term music veils the diverse and potentially colliding musical affective values of both parties—classical music, masterpiece, orchestral practice, ensemble practice, mambo, salsa, and Venezuelan folk music. And in the same vein, the term power shrouds a broad range of socio-musical teleologies—music enriches, music fosters community, music changes the individual, music fights poverty, music changes society. Imagining music as an assuaging entity and imagining performative practice as the antidote for societies’ ills reach an ideological partnership under the utopian canopy of the phrase, the power of music.

Critical Epilogue

While young interns from the U.S. train in various núcleos in Venezuela, thus aspiring to recreate aspects of the program back in the U.S., Abreu himself cultivates the dream of an obligatory Orchestra System within the Venezuelan public school system,122 something he began to envision during his 1970s encounter with the U.S. ensemble-driven music education public school system.123 This intriguing circle of aspirations leads one to wonder, what is it that the U.S. admirers of El Sistema seek, as it could be argued that the U.S. possesses an institutional infrastructure at least as sophisticated? In exploring the neo-idealistic aesthetics that bring together two prominent factions of these countries’ musical cultures, I have presented a possible answer to the question: that at least some of the more vigorous supporters of El Sistema in the U.S. value in it the potential for a vindication and reinvigoration of classical repertoire in the performative public sphere. Seeking a deeper understanding of El Sistema, however, entails a candid consideration of its complex identity in a post-colonial Venezuelan context. El Sistema’s embrace of symphonic practice may incidentally provide hopes and fulfilling experiences for classical music idealists, but the program’s pivotal search for a dislocation of the classical/pop schism, its apparent success in treating the orchestra as an ensemble of diverse stylistic potential, its yet-to-be consummated search for regionalized methodologies, its impact as a music education centralized power, and its grand social vision, all demand to be recognized, emphasized, and scrutinized in explicit contradistinction to the aesthetic values of U.S. classical music idealists. Too long have both parties understated the finer points of their aesthetic inclinations; recognizing this can help in establishing a truly open conversation about the program’s values, goals, and impact, both in Venezuela and in the U.S. Moreover, acknowledging the historical contingency of these aesthetic values—that they are understandably ingrained in our cultures but neither novel nor eternal truths—could provide grounds for an effective evaluation of practices and the beliefs advanced to justify them.

Quite to the point, the marriage of two quasi-mystical ontologies of music and the assumptions upon which they build demand further discussion. The debate over these issues often degrades into bitter partisan arguments or is left altogether ignored, in great part because the matter at hand is closely intertwined with beliefs of life-meaning dimension and deep affections for specific ways of making music. Nevertheless, when beliefs and affections become the fuel for the formation of institutional practices, there are consequences that cannot be ignored. In El Sistema's case, documentaries juxtapose the sound of orchestral music with powerful images of slums in Caracas and children playing violins and trumpets in very poor dwellings. This juxtaposition endears the viewer to the idea of poverty as a distant canvas upon which an esoteric notion of spiritual transcendence stands out. Consider Abreu’s words: “If the musical daily task enters the daily routine, then, a child can play the clarinet in the home, in front of his brothers and neighbors, another the violin in his father’s carpentry shop. … Material poverty is overcome by the spiritual wealth that germinates from and in the music.”124 And those of Mark Churchill as well: “We think of social programs providing food, shelter, housing, and medical care; and absolutely, this is very important for people who don’t have these. But by feeding peoples’ souls, they will find a way to feed themselves, to house themselves, and to find the basic human necessities, and they will, at the same time, grow into people of significance and contribution.”125 Neither Churchill nor Abreu succeed in identifying the concrete process by which a child will find a way to feed herself or will overcome material poverty through musical practice. Neither did Liszt. While music’s powers are often described through the eloquence of metaphorical discourse, poverty and violence exist squarely in the physical realm that music is believed to transcend and demand unequivocal action on that realm.

One must recognize the documented individual testimonies of children whose involvement in the program has indeed saved them from a life of danger and eventually provided them with a way to make a living, often within the protected shrine of the program itself. Such testimonies convey the genuine and incontrovertible experiences of individual human beings, and point to the efforts of human agents who generously provide a protective environment for many children.126 But the pressing issue is directly related to the dimension of El Sistema. This music education empire has succeeded in part through Abreu’s eloquent expression of an unexamined syllogism: El Sistema possesses a unique antidote against society’s ills; the sum of protected children equals society; ergo, El Sistema changes society. One must dare call attention to the massive resources the country invests in an avowed social program whose philosophical foundation rests on a neo-idealistic, elusive notion of transcending rather than confronting physical reality, and whose musical success seems to grow in diametrical inversion to the deteriorating economy and violent space of Venezuela. This, too, is a dynamic that deserves discussion.

The idea of musical practice enriching and even protecting the life of a child, and the idea of defining music—and a specific repertoire, a musical ensemble, or both—as an unparalleled source of power for social change, are two quite different ones. The former would seek to meet the needs of individual children or communities and thus favor a true regional, stylistic, and pedagogical diversity of musical practices; the latter would tend to protect the alleged source of power, whether for the sake of a personal micro-utopia or for that of a society-wide order. Musicologists and ethnomusicologists have long brought the U.S. academy to task for falling into the latter’s trap. El Sistema, tantalizingly, swivels between the two.


I would like to thank the editor of this journal, C. Victor Fung, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. My gratitude also goes to the following individuals for their help in navigating the various archives I visited in Venezuela and for generously providing me with programs, recordings, and copies of important documents: Pedro Núñez, Division Chief, Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño office; José Bergher, President of the OSV Board 1986-1990, cellist with the OSV 1980-2000, current liaison to the archives of the OSV in Caracas; Irene Zerpa, director of the Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Fundación Conservatorio Vicente Emilio Sojo; and Maria Carolina Lara, sub-director of Education at the Conservatory Vicente Emilio Sojo in Barquisimeto. Many thanks as well to Bergher for the additional archival materials, books, and feedback he has made available to me during my research of the history of orchestral practice in Venezuela.

This paper builds on ideas I first delivered in a presentation on October 21, 2011, at the Latin American Music Center’s Fiftieth Anniversary Conference “Cultural Counterpoints: Examining the Musical Interactions between the U.S. and Latin America,” Indiana University, Bloomington (proceedings listed in the bibliography). I would like to extend a word of thanks also to the audience and fellow presenters at this conference, whose provocative comments led me into a significantly deeper engagement with the topic and my own arguments.


1Smaczny and Stodtmeier, Music to Change Life.

2El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music,” 60 Minutes, (accessed December 14, 2013). The original broadcast aired on April 13, 2008.


4Gózalo (Enjoy it!) is an expression commonly used in salsa music and other transnational and Caribbean genres of popular music.

5As stated under “Misión y visión” in the website of the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, (accessed December 14, 2013). All translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

6As stated in the answer to question nineteen, at (accessed December 14, 2013).

7To explore the El Sistema movement in the U.S., visit; the notes for the national meeting that took place in September of 2013 have been made public. Other relevant sites are (accessed March 1, 2013) and the site for “Sistema Fellows Program at New England Conservatory,” (accessed July 13, 2012).

8Tunstall, “Another Perspective,” Music Educators Journal, 69. Tunstall is responding to Lesniak’s article in the same journal, “El Sistema and American Music Education.” My thanks to C. Victor Fung for bringing these articles to my attention.

9Borzacchini, Venezuela en el Cielo de los Escenarios, 214. A núcleo is a community center where children receive free musical training, largely through the orchestra and the choir.

10Pedroza, “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice,” forthcoming. The earliest published history of El Sistema (when it was known mainly as the youth orchestra movement) appears in Asuaje de Rugeles, Ana Mercedes, Maria Guinand, and Bolivia Bottome, Historia del Movimiento Coral y de las Orquestas Juveniles en Venezuela.

11The national curricular guidelines are delineated in published gacetas (see Archival Sources in the Bibliography), which I can make available to anyone interested. The post-sistema 1991 curricular parameters exhibit a radical change of pedagogical language, in addition to the explicit inclusion of orchestral and choral practice. In some cities El Sistema functions within the infrastructures of the old conservatories, but the administrative relationship between them is unclear.

12These aspects of El Sistema emerge clearly in the books by Borzacchini, Asuaje de Rugeles, and in the program’s website.

13Wakin, “Venerated High Priest and Humble Servant of Music Education,” (accessed October 19, 2013).

14In addition to Abreu’s statement in 60 Minutes (see the opening of this paper), see, for example, Borzacchini, Venezuela Bursting with Orchestras, 25. (“There can be no doubt that the arrival of the Orchestras in the communities, in every town, state and family is transforming Venezuelan society ….”)

15Wakin, “Venerated High Priest.”

16See, among many, Lee, “Bravo Gustavo! How Maestro Dudamel Is Saving Classical Music,” (accessed October 11, 2013).

17Tunstall, Changing Lives, xiii. Emphasis mine.

18Baker, “El Sistema: Venezuela’s Youth Orchestra Program” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, and Society for Music Theory, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 1-4, 2012). The abstract can be accessed in a PDF document at His forthcoming book on findings and analysis of fieldwork in Venezuela should be published in the near future.

19Perhaps the best known of public critiques written by a musicologist is Richard Taruskin, “The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music Against Its Devotees,” New Republic, October 22, 2007, (accessed March 13, 2013). (Also in print in Taruskin, The Danger of Music. In its 40-Year Retrospective (volume 40, 2000), College Music Symposium put the subject in perspective by re-issuing Richard Franko Goldman, “In Support of Art,” (originally in volume 16, 1976) and asking ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl for a response, which he provides in “There’s Room for Us All.” For a more general compendium of essays that address the changing aesthetics in music academia see Cook and Everist, eds., Rethinking Music.

20Borzacchini, Venezuela Bursting with Orchestras,180.

21Tunstall, Changing Lives, 3. By “major cultural events” Tunstall is clearly referring to classical music events and others commonly invoked under the rubric of Western art.

22Ibid., 8.

23Ibid., 10-11. Emphasis mine.

24The names and profiles of the flagship orchestras in El Sistema (those that tour internationally and that hold the most competitive auditions) change often. For an updated lineup, visit

25Ibid., 102, 121.

26Schilling, Franz Liszt: sein Leben und Wirken aus nächster Beschauung, quoted in Deaville, “The Politics of Liszt’s Virtuosity,” 134–35.

27Franz Liszt, An Artist’s Journey, 20-21 (originally in the Gazette musicale, September 19, 1841.)

28Hegel, “Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik” [1818-20], in Lipmann, ed., Musical Aesthetics, 93. Emphasis mine.

29See Bonds, “Idealism and the Aesthetics of Instrumental Music.”

30See Locke, Music, Musicians and the Saint-Simonians. According to Locke, Saint-Simon’s writings suggest the perception of art as a “civilizing” force (38), but the writings of his disciples, particularly Léon Halévy, Emile Barrault, and Benjamin-Olinde Rodrigues, evince the more aggressive regard for music as such a force. Their prose conveys an allegiance to early Romantic idealism in their perception of music as ineffable, and in Barrault’s case, an open preference for Austro-German repertoire (56-58).

31Pedroza, “Music as Communitas.”

32I will be using the “American” adjective to refer to the whole of the American continent, and “Liszt” and “Schumann” to refer to the artists I just mentioned.

33For more detail on Liszt’s connections with these socio-political currents, see Merrick, Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt; Walker, Franz Liszt, vol. 1, The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847; and Ludwig Rellstab’s Biographical Sketch of Liszt, intro. and trans. by Keiler, in Franz Liszt and His World, 335-360.

34Liszt, An Artist’s Journey, 21.

35Ibid., 29. Liszt’s rhetoric of “priesthood” is remarkably consistent with that of certain Saint-Simonians. See Locke, Music, Musicians and the Saint-Simonians, 45-52.

36Locke translated and edited the public manifesto in which Liszt made his “call.” See Locke, “Liszt on the Artist in Society,” in Franz Liszt , ed. Gibbs and Gooley, 299-300.

37Locke, Music, Musicians and the Saint-Simonians, 61. Locke is quoting Benjamin-Olinde Rodrigues, who in turn is advocating for “the hymn of the future.”

38Ibid., 17. Locke explores the variegated positions that Saint-Simonians could take on this respect, some advocating for the creation of socio-political song repertoire to “stir” the masses, others favoring a more nuanced belief in the ineffability of music as “independent art” (the latter clearly in tune with contemporary Germanic idealistic aesthetics).

39Pedroza, “Music as Communitas,” 305-309. Many of Liszt’ recitals are documented as events where communal ecstasy was ubiquitous and where the atmosphere was closer in character to a rock concert than to the contemplative affairs modern recitals have become. On this subject, see Kramer, “Franz Liszt and the Virtuoso Public Sphere,” in Musical Meaning; and Leppert, “Cultural Contradiction,” in Piano Roles, among others.

40See Reich, Clara Schumann, 272.

41Litzmann, Clara Schumann, 2:37.

42Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms 1853-1896, 1:109-110. Emphasis mine (except for “à la Bach.”)

43Pedroza, “Music as Communitas,” 313-317.

44The influence of Germanic idealism in the U.S. academy is well documented, and its historical contingency—as opposed to a priori acceptance—has at last been recognized in the recent editions of standard music history textbooks such as Burkholder/Grout’s A History of Western Music. The influence of Liszt and Schuman in the U.S. has been addressed in Locke, trans. and ed., “Liszt on the Artist in Society,” in Franz Liszt , ed. Gibbs and Gooley, 295-6, and Reich, “Clara Schumann in America,” in Clara Schumann Komponistin, Interpretin, Unternehmerin, Ikone, 195-203, among others. However, this topic could receive more scholarly attention.

45Bohlman, “Ontologies of Music,” in Rethinking Music. In appropriating the philosophical term “ontology”—which for decades has served aestheticians such as Peter Kivy and Jerrold Levinson as the canvas for the challenge of defining the parameters by which the musical object can be said to “exist”—Bohlman is challenging the a priori notion of music existing as an object, and instead, suggesting that music is “enacted” in a great variety of ways, and it is perhaps through that enactment that we glimpse at a variety of “ontologies” or ways of “imagining music.” (See pages 18 and 34 in particular.)

46I stress the issue of affective engagement because I continue to seek to avoid the pitfall of essentializing these two lines of idealism along the binaries of intellect vs. emotion, mind vs. body. I also wish to distinguish my arguments from those that in the past have critiqued the idealization of classical music on account of its alleged privileged position in the space of social elites. Without denying that socio-economic privilege is an important variant in any study of the concept of classical music, it is my contention that the aesthetic and affective relationship of classical music lovers with that repertoire requires scholarly examination as well, an argument that—if with different motivations—is also advanced by Locke in “Music Lovers, Patrons, and the ‘Sacralization’ of Culture in America.”

47Pedroza, “Music as Communitas,” 301-302, 319-320. In speaking of “idealist aesthetics” in the nineteenth century and their more recent “closet supporters,” Jim Samson states that they all share “a commitment to the closure which separates the work of art from the world, and to the consequent capacity of the significant work to draw us into its healing ‘real presence.’” See Samson, “Analysis in Context,” in Rethinking Music, 40.

48I invoke this term within the context of the critical treatment it has received in the last decades, and define it as follows: A philosophy of social science that aims not merely to collect data and texts, but to deduce intrinsic (structural) and extrinsic (social) “rules” by which such data is subsequently construed into historical and pedagogical doctrines.

49See Samson’s historization and critique of formalism in “Analysis in Context,” in Rethinking Music, pp. 37-46. See also Caswell and Smith, “Into the Ivory Tower.” In broader terms, the “New Musicology” movement and others challenged the music academy’s uncritical support of the concepts of the autonomous musical work, of formalism, and of the idealization of a narrow body of mostly European repertoire. In addition to those mentioned in note 19, some of the classic critiques are: Subotnik, Developing Variations; Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works; Bergeron and Bohlman, eds., Disciplining Music; McClary and Walser, “Start Making Sense! Musicology Wrestles with Rock”; Tomlinson, “Musicology, Anthropology, History” in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction.

50It is generally accepted that the influx of German immigrants to the U.S. in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was pivotal in the establishment of Germanic repertoire and aesthetics in the U.S. academy. See Horowitz, Classical Music in America; Tawa, The Coming of Age of American Art Music; and Newman, Good Music for a Free People. Regarding U.S. aesthetics at the turn of the twentieth century, see Saffle, ed., Music and Culture in America, 1861-1918; and Saloman, “American Writers on Beethoven.” I would argue, however, that we are yet to produce a rigorous critical scrutiny of the immigrant legacy in relation to the U.S. cultural and political sensibilities that welcomed it.

51For a detailed discussion of Dwight’s aesthetic sources, development as a critic, and influence in the academic sphere, see Saloman, Beethoven's Symphonies and J.S. Dwight.

52Dwight, “The Intellectual Influence of Music,” 615. Archives of the Atlantic Monthly are accessible through Cornell University Library, at;cc=atla;view=toc;subview=short;idno=atla0026-5 (accessed March 13, 2013).

53Dwight, “Music as a Means of Culture,” 321-332.;cc=atla;view=toc;subview=short;idno=atla0026-3 (accessed March 13, 2013).

54Ibid., 323.

55Ibid., 330-31.

56Schonberg, The Great Pianists, 396–397.

57See especially chapters 22 and 23 in W. S. B. Mathews, fifth edition, How to Understand Music: A Concise Course of Musical Culture. The book can be accessed at (accessed March 13, 2013).

58Goldman, “In Support of Art,” 14. (References are to the 1976 original release.)


60Ibid., 21. Emphasis mine.

61Kramer, Why Classical Music Still Matters, 29, 33, 14.

62Ibid., 33-34. Emphasis mine.

63Ibid., 24.

64Lesniak, “El Sistema and American Music Education,” 65.

65“Karl Paulnack Welcome Address,” (accessed January 26, 2013).

66Ibid. Emphasis mine.

67See (accessed March 8, 2013).

68Arvelo, Tocar y Luchar, @ 0:04:25.

69Ibid., @ 0:01:00.

70Swed, “Gustavo Dudamel’s Mahler Project,” (accessed February 7, 2013).

71Johnson, “Dudamel Prepares to Unite the Americas,” (accessed February 7, 2013).

72Ibid. At the opening concert, at which I was present, Dudamel stated: “We want also to give the message of music as one, not only classical separate in this case from the bachata and the merengue.” Notwithstanding the rough grammar, the crowd cheered wildly understanding his categorical rejection of the classical-popular dichotomy.

73Smaczny and Stodtmeier, Music to Change Life, @ 0:05:27.

74Abreu,“Orquestas Juveniles y Presente Latinoamericano,” in Ramírez Ribes, ed. ¿Cabemos Todos?, 405-406.

75Smaczny and Stodtmeier, Music to Change Life, @ 0:04:46.

76As listed in the credits of the film, @1:39:00.

77Ibid., @ 0:05:55.

78Ibid., @ 1:06:33.

79Ibid., @ 0:30:27.

80Ibid., @ 1:28:41.

81Sánchez Lansch, The Promise of Music, @ 0:56:30.

82Ibid., @ 0:39:52. Patricio Alomoto speaking.

83“Product Description” at (accessed March 14, 2013).

84Arvelo, Tocar y Luchar, @ at 54.55. This film features Abreu’s statements more prominently than the other two.

85Ibid., @ 0:51:02.

86This is a type of hut common in the coastal region of the country.

87Pedroza, “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice,” forthcoming.

88The OSV is still active. See

89“The good music,” in literal translation. Prominent academic musicians and journalists of the first half of the twentieth century in Venezuela often used this phrase, as exemplified in Plaza, El Lenguaje de la Música, 16-17. This book is a compendium of Juan Bautista Plaza’s radio programs in music appreciation, which aired for a couple of years starting in 1939. It can now be accessed online at

90El Lenguaje de la Música’s introductory chapter, “El mensaje de la verdadera música” (“The Message of True Music”) reveals that Plaza’s rhetoric and attitudes were not dissimilar to those of Matthews and Dwight decades earlier in the U.S.. Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of idealist rhetoric with an inclusive discussion of German, Spanish, French, U.S., and Latin American repertoire, in addition to “folkloric” music, is strikingly different. For a socio-historical contextualization of Plaza and his milieu, see Aponte, “The Invention of the National in Venezuelan Art Music, 1920-1960.”

91See Tunstall, Changing Lives, 33-35.

92Abreu, “Orquestas Juveniles y Presente Latinoamericano,” in ¿Cabemos Todos?, 405. In “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice,” I further explore Abreu’s and El Sistema’s initial, focused idealization of symphonic practice.

93Tocar y Luchar, 2006, @ 0:23:45.

94Ibid., @ 0:24:32.

95See note 72 above. It is interesting to observe Dudamel’s apparent thought process in relation to his idea of music as one. At least three years previous to his assertive use of this phrase at the launching of his Americas & American festival, Dudamel found himself in a tight spot when Jian Ghomeshi of Q TV asked him, “how do you feel about being called the future, the savior of classical music?” His answer reflected an interesting set of ambivalences: “I think music is very important – the main reason of all this craziness, you know, about my name, and the orchestra, is because the music is wonderful. I don’t think I –we have personally have to save something. … For me is very important, of course, to give the message to the people, of why classical music, why art, why culture is important for the society.” While answering the next question about “all the attention he personally gets,” Dudamel decides to elaborate on his previous statement: “I think it’s important [the attention] for classical music, because, of course, all music is important, we are only one, pop music, classical music, folk music, but you know, always classical music has been like, you know, for a little group of the society, and, if we have the chance to give the attention to the classical music, it’s great.” Emphasis mine. See the interview at (accessed March 28, 2013). In a post-festival interview with NPR (September 2012), Dudamel’s statements appear more focused: “All music is coming from folk music, the music our ancestors were doing, that became classical music, the dances, the jazz, now the rock, pop, Latin, music coming from Africa. All music is one, in different ways. They are completely different from each other, but at the same time they are only one. It's music.” See (accessed April 5, 2013).

96The statement is under the title “genesis and objectives” in an undated banded book housed at the archives of the Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, at the Teresa Carreño theater office.

97These critiques are found in Mendoza, “La Composición en Venezuela,” (accessed July 5, 2011); and Flores Arévalo, “Políticas Culturales.” It is rumored that the relatively new Centro de Acción Social por la Música in Caracas houses a monumental video archive of all El Sistema performances; to my knowledge, a systematic study of this archive has not yet been undertaken.

98Program, “Festival Beethoven.” The translated text is from Alfredo Rugeles’ opening words in the program, “Beethoven y la Juventud” (“Beethoven and the youth”). The 2001 Festival Amadeus commemorated the XXVI anniversary of El Sistema. Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño Theatre Archives, Caracas

99Program, Pabellón sin baranda, “Atrinca.” Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño Theatre Archives, Caracas.

100Visit, for example, .

101See Hollinger, “Instrument of Social reform,” Appendix A. Her thorough listings of núcleo ensembles evinces that the symphony orchestra is still the ruling ensemble.

102Tunstall, “Another Perspective,” Music Educators Journal, 70.

103María Elena Ramos, “Entrevista a José Antonio Abreu ‘Con La Música.’” Analitica.Com, May 30, 2008. (accessed July 15, 2011).

104Statement of “genesis and objectives,” found at the Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño Theatre Archives: “The dynamic and methodological structure of El Sistema is sustained by a flexible, open, and democratic style of management that favors the adaptation of the same to the local exigencies of each region and allows maximum integration of children and youth.”

105During the late 2000s, this set included Arturo Márquez’ Danzón, Aldemaro Romero’s Fuga con Pajarillo, and a number of arrangements of Perez Prado’s mambos, among others. The SBYO’s well known recordings with the Dorian label during the 1990s, and the more recent (2008) Deutsche Grammophon album Fiesta, also evince a conscious desire to uphold the legacy of the standard symphonic Latin American repertoire of Silvestre Revueltas, Carlos Chávez, Evencio Castellanos, Antonio Estévez, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, among others.

106Tunstall, Changing Lives, 174.


108Rivera, “Using Music to Mentor Venezuela’s Poorest Youth,” (accessed May 14, 2012).

109Lamb, “El Sistema Taps the Power of Classical Music,” (accessed May 13, 2012).

110Rivera, “Using Music to Mentor Venezuela’s Poorest Youth.”

111Lamb, “El Sistema Taps the Power of Classical Music.”

112Tunstall, Changing Lives, xiii. Emphasis added.

113Ibid., xiv-xv. Emphasis mine.

114Ibid., 12.

115Ibid., 16. Fragments of an interview that appears to be the one cited by Tunstall can be seen at; (accessed April 5, 2013).

116Ibid., 13.

117Tunstall, Changing Lives, 272.

118Ibid., 273-274.

119A few examples of this trend are: P. 61: “Carlos Chávez came to Caracas and spent three months working with this unorthodox ensemble of inexperienced but determined young musicians, not only on his own music but also on masterworks such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.” P. 86: “At several prisons in the Andes and on the western coast, and at a women’s prison in Los Teques, inmates gather regularly in orchestras and smaller ensembles to play Venezuelan folk music and symphonic masterworks.” P. 106: “A work by Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos follows. The music brims with Latin folk melodies and dance rhythms; one would conclude that these young people play it with such relish because it’s in their heritage, their very bones, since childhood—had they not just played a masterpiece of French Impressionism as though they had all grown up under the plane trees of the Tuileries.” Emphasis mine.

120Interview fragment from Eichler, “You’re part of something bigger,” (accessed June 8, 2012).

121Tunstall, Changing Lives, 123.

122Borzacchini, Venezuela Bursting with Orchestras, 26.

123Ibid., 57. Abreu is alluding to the health problems that took him to the U.S., where he came in contact with “artistic experiences” that allowed him “to see the evolution of music in other nations, the dynamic of work of the orchestras and choirs, and above all, I came to know the state of musical education in North America. That enormously completed my professional criterion for music.”

124Abreu, “Orquestas Juveniles y Presente Latinoamericano,” in ¿Cabemos Todos?, 406.

125Arvelo, Tocar y Luchar, @ 0:27:05. Emphasis mine.

126Informal conversations with El Sistema agents revealed to me that many of them attribute the success of the program—as it pertains to the individual kids—to the hard work and sacrifice of its instructors, to the individual and communal attention the children receive, and to the competitive and challenging nature of musical practice, which keeps them focused. It is important to recognize that none of these things are inherent to musical practice or any less difficult to achieve through other activities.


Archival Sources

Sinfónica de la Juventud Venezolana Simón Bolívar, Teresa Carreño Theatre

Archives, Caracas:

Fundación del Estado Para El Sistema Nacional de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela. “Genesis and Objectives.” (Undated banded book.)

Concert program: “Festival Beethoven, en el Marco de los 20 Años del Teatro Teresa Carreño,” June 1-13, 2003.

Concert program: Pabellón sin baranda, “Atrinca: Concierto y Bautizo del Disco.” Javier Montilla, Flauta, Pedro Vásquez, violoncello y Voz, Orlando Cardozo, cuatro. Domingo 6   de abril de 2008, 5:00pm, Centro Cultural Corp Group. Sponsored by FESNOJIV.

Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Fundación Conservatorio Vicente Emilio Sojo, Barquisimeto-Lara:

“Reglamento para la educación artística.” Gaceta Oficial de la Republica de Venezuela. No. 25.362. Caracas: Jueves 23 de mayo, 1957.

“Ministerio de Educación: Resolución por las [sic] cual se dictan los programas para las materias de las Escuelas de Música en la forma en ella expresada.” Gaceta Oficial de la Republica de Venezuela. No. 909 Extraordinario. Caracas: Viernes 29 de mayo, 1964.

“Ministerio de Educación y Consejo Nacional de la Cultura: Modalidad de Educación Estética y Formación para las Artes.” Gaceta Oficial de la Republica de Venezuela. No. 34.864. Caracas: 9 de diciembre, 1991. (279.627-279.629)

Books and Articles

Abreu, José Antonio. “Orquestas Juveniles y Presente Latinoamericano.” In ¿Cabemos Todos?Los Desafíos de la Inclusión, edited by María Ramírez Ribes. Caracas: Club de Roma, 2004.

Aponte, Pedro Rafael. “The Invention of the National in Venezuelan Art Music, 1920-1960.” PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2008.

Asuaje de Rugeles, Ana Mercedes, Maria Guinand, and Bolivia Bottome. Historia del Movimiento Coral y de las Orquestas Juveniles en Venezuela. Caracas: Cuadernos Lagoven, 1986.

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Unpublished Presentations

Baker, Geoffrey. “El Sistema: Venezuela’s Youth Orchestra Program.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, and Society for Music Theory, New Orleans, Louisiana, November 1-4, 2012.

30621 Last modified on March 7, 2019