As a journalist, I am paid to be cynical. It’s my job to voice skepticism and to demand truth in the face of spin. Having heard so much about the Venezuelan music education network known as El Sistema, it’s tempting for me to be dismissive. Surely the PR machine has carefully scripted the narrative for the rest of the world. I’ll admit I’ve had those thoughts.
Until today. Until I saw it with my own eyes.
I spent the morning at the Center for Social Action Through Music—a compact, but extensive complex in Caracas that is home to several Sistema orchestras, Gustavo Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is one of them. The six-story campus has multiple concert halls, several floors of practice rooms, one of the largest organs in Latin America, and an amazing outdoor stage. (The back wall of the building folds into the building to form the stage. It’s open for concerts, obviously. And when it’s closed, the resulting indoor space becomes a rehearsal room.)
The Center serves between 1,500-3,000 musicians per day! The halls are filled with music. On this morning, I happened to stumble upon the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal. (This is what’s known as the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra “A” – a group that’s been around longer than the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra “B” which is Dudamel’s orchestra here.)
This afternoon, a number of LA Phil musicians went to the Simón Bolívar Conservatory of Music for sectional rehearsals with about 150 young musicians of El Sistema. The string orchestra played Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for members of the LA Phil, who then conducted a sort of master class with the kids. Later the LA Phil players sat down next to the kids and played side-by-side with their Venezuelan counterparts.
Afterwards, pandemonium ensued. The kids–ranging in age anywhere from 10-20–posed for photographs with the LA Phil musicians.
Some played their latest concerto movement.
Others just jammed.
Passion has become an overused word in Los Angeles, particularly as it relates to Gustavo Dudamel. The ubiquity of that word breeds skepticism about artistic depth. But as the young musicians of the Simón Bolívar Conservatory literally chased the LA Phil’s bus down the street to wave good-bye (they’ll be back on Wednesday), one can only interpret their enthusiasm and, yes, their passion as genuine.
Here in Venezuela, the kids who play a musical instrument command respect from their peers. In a country where violent crime is a way of life, people don’t mess with the kids who have instruments on their backs. There’s an incredible sense of honor attached to musicianship.
Sure, there’s some slick marketing involved. Sure, not every single child in El Sistema will turn out to be the next Dudamel. But that’s not the point.
Beyond all the publicity, beyond all the talk, beyond all journalistic skepticism, there’s a real community being built. The foundation is great music.