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Critic's Notebook

At NEC, a missed opportunity

El Sistema USA has been a powerful asset

The first class of El Sistema USA’s Abreu fellows posed outside New England Conservatory last June. Back row, from left: Rebecca Levi, David Malek, Alvaro Rodas, Jonathan Govias, and Daniel Berkowitz. Front row, from left: Stanford Thompson, Kathryn Wyatt, Christine Witkowski, Lorrie Heagy, and Dantes Rameau. The first class of El Sistema USA’s Abreu fellows posed outside New England Conservatory last June. Back row, from left: Rebecca Levi, David Malek, Alvaro Rodas, Jonathan Govias, and Daniel Berkowitz. Front row, from left: Stanford Thompson, Kathryn Wyatt, Christine Witkowski, Lorrie Heagy, and Dantes Rameau. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

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Like many admirers of the Venezuelan music program known as El Sistema, I was both surprised and disappointed by the recent news that the allied organization El Sistema USA is likely to no longer have its home at New England Conservatory. The ultimate impact of this probable move will hopefully be limited, but it strikes me as a puzzling development and a significant missed opportunity for NEC.

Founded in 2009, El Sistema USA is a network center set up to support the roughly 35 community music programs that have been founded around the country with missions inspired by the Venezuelan approach to music education, an approach that has brought instruments and formative musical experiences to thousands of poor children in that country over the course of more than three decades.

NEC has committed to hosting El Sistema USA’s one-year graduate training program — the Abreu fellowship — through the 2013-14 academic year, but the network center itself is now seeking new headquarters from which it can carry out expanded plans to aid the local music centers, or “nucleos,’’ that have been recently founded in underserved communities around the country.

To be clear, El Sistema USA does not provide centralized funding to individual nucleos, so these neighborhood programs will not be immediately impacted by NEC’s decision. But the school’s choice to not fund El Sistema USA’s planned expansion as a network hub has left that organization little recourse but to seek a new home.

NEC’s decision is a curious and potentially embarrassing call from an institution that since the beginning has proudly trumpeted its affiliation with the Venezuelan program, an affiliation that also became a public relations bonanza for the school. NEC deserved the attention it received for its bold initial vision and for its continued support of the Abreu fellowship program. That support seems to reflect an understanding that music schools must start thinking more actively about community engagement and about new models for training musicians in the 21st century.

But with many other pressing projects on the school’s agenda, that support has apparently reached its ceiling. According to a recent Globe article by Geoff Edgers, things came to a head this fall after El Sistema USA completed a strategic plan charting its own expansion and NEC balked at the accompanying price tag, which ranges between $125,000 and $400,000 a year, depending on who is doing the estimating. A school spokesperson referred to other core funding priorities, including a planned campus construction project.

No one could debate NEC’s determination of its own funding priorities, and attending to its physical plant, in anyone’s calculus, must surely be high among them. What’s unfortunate is that this decision seems to have been framed as a zero-sum game — that NEC could not see El Sistema USA’s continued presence as an asset worth saving and as a fundamental extension of the Abreu fellowship rather than as a drain on its resources and its development capacity.

In fact, having El Sistema USA headquartered at NEC projected a powerful symbolic message about the school’s own values, placing it in the front ranks of big conservatories thinking about equity issues in access to classical music, and about the broader social dimensions of music education. Supporting the program’s upcoming expansion would have been an opportunity to secure and bolster that national leadership role. The program’s presence would have also provided a valuable enticement to the school’s own students to think more broadly about their futures in music, and about what opportunities may lie beyond more conventional orchestral career paths. Even in purely pragmatic terms, an outsider might imagine that having El Sistema USA under its roof might actually enable NEC to approach new donors who are motivated by the social issues the program aims to address.

I have no doubt that El Sistema USA will find new footing and may even end up stronger for the move it is now contemplating. Where exactly the organization should go is another question, or more specifically, whether it should end up at a musical institution or a non-musical one. NEC’s apparent reluctance to hold onto the entirety of El Sistema USA — with the expanding network center as an essential companion to the Abreu fellowship — may reflect a larger fuzziness on the part of many mainstream classical music institutions about what this program’s potential importance could be. This is, after all, an experiment that no one has tried in this country in a coordinated way. At this point, it seems worth remembering that in Venezuela in the 1970s, the government’s initial support for El Sistema came not through its ministry of culture but through its ministry of social development. El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, sold his program not as a vehicle for producing great youth orchestras but as a means of addressing widespread poverty.

But the government-funded Venezuelan example takes one only so far, since the program here will remain decentralized. That’s actually an advantage in moments like this, since El Sistema USA’s ultimate success depends less on the institution providing the roof over its head than on how well the work is going in the various community music centers themselves — and in their kindred-spirited initiatives that have been underway for years before the Venezuelan model became so popular.

Reports from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Durham, N.C., and Juneau, Alaska, suggest that tangible progress is already being made. Each of these cities has a newly launched nucleo where public school children are being given a taste of intensive musical immersion. Wherever El Sistema USA ultimately sets up shop, the essential work it supports is continuing at pace.

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