José Antonio Abreu, creator of the musical project El Sistema, has recently died at the age of 78. El Sistema, founded by Abreu in 1975, has provided free music education for thousands of children in Venezuela, many deriving from the country’s poorest neighbourhoods and shantytowns.
The programme has provided these children with more than an education, says Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic: ‘Abreu has given life to a musical system with which young people can be safe from the dangers of the street, of crime, of drugs.’
Abreu stressed the significance of music’s powers for social change, in its ability to foster solidarity, empowerment, leadership, commitment and collectivity. Many musicians from the programme have nonetheless gone on to work with leading classical orchestras around the world.
‘We will continue to play music, sing and fight for the world that Maestro Abreu dreamed of, and for the future legacy that he has left us’
One former student Edicson Ruiz, who is now principal bass for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, explains how the programme brought him and his mother out of poverty: ‘When I was twelve years old, my mother suddenly became unemployed. She started driving a taxi. It’s not exactly safe and I wanted to help her. Maestro Abreu took me on as an intern in the huge Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra – for good wages.’
Another former El Sistema musician is the renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel (pictured above with Abreu), who, like Edicson went on to pursue an impressive musical career, first as music director of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, and now as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
‘The music and arts have lost one of its brightest figures’, Dudamel states in the hours following Abreu’s death. ‘Maestro José Antonio Abreu taught us that art is a universal right and that inspiration and beauty irreversibly transform the soul of a child making them a better, healthier and happier human being, and in turn, a better citizen.’
Dudamel voices his ceaseless commitment to Abreu’s legacy, as well as to the young people who, like him, have been profoundly moved and transformed by music. ‘To these children, and to the millions touched by Maestro Abreu’s legacy,’ he says, ‘I would like to say that this is just the beginning of the journey. We will continue to play music, sing and fight for the world that Maestro Abreu dreamed of, and for the future legacy that he has left us.’
Though Abreu’s passing marks a great loss, his legacy demonstrates a tremendous gain for generations of young people in poverty across the world, one that will no doubt continue to thrive vicariously through the countless orchestras across the world that emulate, wholeheartedly, the work and spirit of El Sistema.