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There is magic in the music

They call it El Sistema, a movement transforming the lives of Venezuelan children through performance. Now, a Boston-based group plans a US encore

El Sistema USA Movie sample from ElSistemaUSAmovie on Vimeo.

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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First in a series of articles that will continue next Sunday in the Arts & Entertainment section.

CARACAS — In the southern reaches of this city, La Rinconada music center is buzzing with a happy sonic chaos as music spills from rehearsal rooms into the hallways. A circle of 3-year-olds ponders the mysteries of the hand bell, older children pick through Venezuelan folk tunes on guitars, and a cluster of brass players sounds out the theme song from “The Simpsons.’’ In a large, packed rehearsal room, a seasoned Venezuelan choral teacher is warming up young voices.

Suddenly, she hands the floor over to three Boston visitors.

Rebecca Levi, 24, and Lorrie Heagy, 45, swing into action, teaching two songs in Spanish along with some complex hand movements. David Malek, 41, grabs a drum and lays down a beat. In minutes, all 80 children are on their feet, and the room churns with song and dance.

The Venezuelan phenomenon known widely by its nickname — El Sistema, or “The System’’ — attracts many visitors, but none quite like this. Levi, Heagy, and Malek are members of the inaugural class of fellows from El Sistema USA: a handpicked group of young, monastically dedicated American musicians, based at New England Conservatory, and determined to bring this revolution in music education to Boston and other American communities.

They have come to learn the secrets of El Sistema, the almost fairy tale-like way it has turned to music as a vehicle for keeping poor children off the violent streets, giving them self-confidence, discipline, and other practical life skills, and in the process building up urban communities around symphony orchestras made up of children. El Sistema now reaches 400,000 Venezuelan children, with 70 percent living below the poverty line.

Music educators from Scotland to Australia have been scrambling to import El Sistema’s principles to their own countries. Until now, however, there has never been a concerted effort to do so in the United States. That is changing, and Boston is emerging as a national center of these efforts.

With headquarters at the New England Conservatory, the recently established El Sistema USA is trying to jumpstart a national movement dedicated to music education not as extracurricular enrichment but as a vehicle for transforming the lives of children in underserved urban communities.

“Everybody is excited about it,’’ said Mark Churchill, a cellist, conductor, and dean emeritus of the conservatory’s department of preparatory and continuing education, who serves as director of El Sistema USA.

“I’ve been involved in lots of different aspects of music-making and music education over my entire career, and I’ve just never seen anything that has allowed — or demanded — that people rise above their personal and institutional self-limitations and think in an idealistic way that’s full of hope, energy, and this sense of rightness.’’

The United States’ first 10 Abreu Fellows — named for El Sistema’s revered founder, José Antonio Abreu — spent two months visiting some 50 music centers or “nucleos’’ across Venezuela, from makeshift tin-roofed structures deep in the interior of the country to the newly renovated centers like La Rinconada in the capital. They graduated from the program last month, and now they will fan out to begin spreading the gospel.

In Brighton, Levi and Malek will launch an intensive music program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School this fall. Others will join or start El Sistema-inspired nucleos in Atlanta; Philadelphia; New York City; Durham, N.C.; Juneau, Alaska; and Los Angeles, where El Sistema’s celebrity graduate, Gustavo Dudamel, conducts the LA Philharmonic.

Meanwhile, organizations in other cities like Portland, Maine, and Santa Barbara, Calif., have contacted the group’s office at NEC on Huntington Avenue, hoping to hire a fellow to create programs in their communities. These groups will have to wait until next year’s fellowship class. At the moment, demand is greater than supply.

“There’s something happening globally that people are just starting to understand,’’ said Malek, who hails from San Antonio, standing outside a classroom at La Rinconada. “It’s a realization that the orchestra is the one communal structure that can focus all the energies and passions of youth. No other structure is that strong.’’

‘This is a social program’
But what constitutes an authentic El Sistema-modeled program? The answer brings one back to the essence of the Venezuelan program itself.

At the core of El Sistema is a faith in the holistic benefits of musical immersion from a young age. This means a time commitment comparable in the United States only to participation in varsity sports. Venezuelan children spend up to four hours a day, six afternoons a week, studying music in their neighborhood nucleos. And from the earliest possible moment, they are brought together to scratch out tunes in orchestras.

The goal is not to produce a nation of professional musicians, or even to teach Mozart and Beethoven as such, according to Rodrigo Guerrero, El Sistema’s officer of international affairs. At the beginning, parents are persuaded to enroll their children simply as a free way to keep them occupied, safe, and off the streets after school. Yet once they are enrolled, the joys of communal music-making can become contagious, and what began for parents as little more than free childcare can become something much bigger.

“When you have an orchestra within a community, the orchestra empowers the community to such a level that the orchestra becomes its clearest form of expression,’’ said Guerrero. “You get parents, teachers, and local government asking for the orchestra to be present as a representation of the community at social functions. And because the families come to depend on the local nucleos, one of the demands that the community will make on a politician trying to be elected is, ‘What are you going to do for our orchestras?’ ’’

In Venezuela, the Abreu Fellows met with Abreu himself, who at 71 appears somewhat frail — until he begins spinning out vast utopian visions for music and social change. Trained as an economist and a musician, he founded El Sistema in 1975, with 11 children rehearsing in a garage. He has subsequently built his life around the insight that music can instill what he calls a “spiritual affluence’’ in children with little else in their lives.

Among those who work within El Sistema, Abreu is regarded with an almost religious reverence, an aura that is also felt by his admirers abroad. The Boston conductor Benjamin Zander has called him “the Gandhi of classical music.’’

Abreu also has a canny knack for politics. He has persuaded eight successive governments to support the program, while always making sure that El Sistema remains apolitical. To this day 80 percent of El Sistema’s funding comes from the Venezuelan government. Yet from the beginning, Abreu insisted that the support be channeled not through Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture but through its Ministry of Social Development.

“Cultural ministries within all of Latin America manage a very elite concept of culture,’’ he told the Abreu Fellows at their first meeting. “So from the very beginning I wanted to have the state acknowledge that this is a social program, and as an artist, I demand that my art be dignified with the mission of creating better human beings.’’

The fellows seem to have walked away from their initial meeting with Abreu in various states of awe. Dantes Rameau, a bassoonist from Ontario, wrote on his blog that he was ready “to run through a brick wall’’ for the man. Levi, originally from New York City, said this initial meeting with Abreu made her realize that her entire life had been leading up to this new role.

A musical fellowship
The fellowship drew a group with diverse musical backgrounds, from Heagy, a midcareer music teacher and librarian at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, to Rameau, Stanford Thompson, and Christine Witkowski, all three of whom recently trained as instrumentalists at top-tier music schools. Daniel Berkowitz is a trombonist and entrepreneur in the financial services industry; Jonathan Govias is a rising young conductor; Kathryn Wyatt is a well-traveled violist who has worked in orchestral management; and Alvaro Rodas is a Guatemalan-born percussionist who has helped El Sistema take root in his native country and wrote a master’s thesis on the program at Columbia University.

They all thought they were coming to Venezuela as observers and researchers, but the nucleos pride themselves on learning from any visitor with something to teach, so the fellows were quickly swept into the mix, giving private lessons, coaching brass sectionals, or leading seminars in early childhood education.

One nucleo director in the northwestern city of Acarigua turned over his entire orchestra to three Abreu fellows and gave them two weeks to prepare a challenging concert program. Working in cramped quarters during a period of nationwide electricity outages, the fellows rehearsed an orchestra with an enormous range of players, from experienced students to a young bassoonist whom Rameau had taught to make his first sounds on the instrument only days earlier. (They wrote him a special part consisting mostly of the note B-flat.) “The concert itself was given outside in stifling heat, with the dogs barking and a drunkard shouting,’’ recalled Govias, who conducted the orchestra. “But it was a truly marvelous experience, one of the most meaningful performances of my life.’’

Another group of fellows traveled to the city of Barquisimeto only to find the nucleo closed when they arrived at 8:30 a.m. Nearby, however, they heard the sounds of a professional orchestra, and upon investigation discovered the nucleo staff sitting not behind desks but behind music stands, rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It turns out that many of El Sistema’s teachers and administrators are themselves products of the program, and are encouraged to maintain their identities as artists and performers.

Getting, and giving back
That approach appealed to Thompson, a trumpet player from Decatur, Ga., who recently graduated from the elite Curtis Institute of Music and had felt he needed to choose between a career in trumpet performance and a commitment to working with children in urban communities. “The crossroad was really, really tough,’’ he said over breakfast in a Caracas hotel. “I was scared about not playing as much. I had this vision that when I was 30 years old, maybe I’d be selling all my trumpets.’’ He ended up turning down a principal position in a professional orchestra in order to become an Abreu Fellow. Next year, he will run an organization called “Tune up, Philly!’’ in Philadelphia.

Rameau, for his part, will lead a new initiative called the Atlanta Music Project. As a bassoonist of Haitian and Cameroonian descent, he said he spent many years attending classical music concerts and falling in love with the sound of orchestras, but feeling baffled as to why there were so few blacks or Latinos in the audience or on stage.

“It’s as if other parts of the world didn’t know how good this was, and that the classical music establishment itself wasn’t doing much to invite other people into their world,’’ he said. “And then they sit there and wonder why the concert halls are half empty.’’

This time, at least one major American orchestra seems determined to get in on the act. The LA Philharmonic, with Dudamel at its helm, has emerged as a leader in efforts to transplant this philosophy to the United States. Two of the Abreu fellows will be working with new community youth orchestras founded in partnership with the Philharmonic.

Back at La Rinconada music center, as classes let out, Malek talks about what he will take back with him to Boston.

“I really believe that what we have to learn is nothing musical,’’ he says. “It’s in the relationships. It’s in the priorities they have. That’s what we have to bring back. It’s not that we don’t have it in the States — it’s that we’ve sort of forgotten what’s important.’’

He pauses, looking up through rimless glasses and projecting a quiet but firm intensity. “Abreu started with 11 kids playing in a garage,’’ he said. “If that’s how it starts for us, that’s how it starts.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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