New England Conservatory President Tony Woodcock and Eduardo Méndez, executive director of Fundacíon Musical Simón Bolívar (known familiarly as “El Sistema”) signed a new Friendship Agreement at a festive ceremony in Caracas. El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu and officials of NEC attended along with the 10 Sistema Fellows from NEC who are just completing their five-week residency in Venezuela.
As recognition of the importance of their continuing relationship, NEC has commissioned a 10-minute work from NEC Composition Chair Michael Gandolfi. It is for youth orchestra, incorporating quotations from Dr. Abreu. President Woodcock, announcing the commission at the ceremony, presented Dr. Abreu with a video in which Gandolfi spoke warmly about the importance of music for social development as well as of his own eagerness to write the new work.
Each year 10 gifted young musicians from NEC are given the grounding in organizational management, pedagogy, fundraising, communications, and other skills needed to operate an El Sistema-style community music center. The Sistema Fellows program (formerly Abreu Fellows Program) has become a major international enterprise; a number of its graduates direct several of the independent nucleos. Other major institutional supporters of the program in the United States are the LA Philharmonic (led by El Sistema graduate Gustavo Dudamel), the League of American Orchestras (based in New York City), and the joint initiative of Longy School and Bard College, in partnership with the LA Phil.
El Sistema was founded 38 years ago in Venezuela by Dr. Abreu. His vision that highly valued, intensive music programs based on ensemble playing, and his belief in the potential of every child to excel, have led to an impressive model of arts education for transformational social change. The over 350,000 children and youth currently in Venezuela’s El Sistema mark the greatest success ever seen in this type of endeavor. Many musical leaders cite it as the world’s most important program involving the young in classical music.
The El Sistema movement in the US comprises a group of over 50 independent programs (most often referred to as “nucleos,” as in Venezuela) that define themselves as “El Sistema-inspired.” The major “nucleo” here in Boston is at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, a charter school that serves 153 students in grades pre-kindergarten and k-5, where all students participate in an El Sistema-modeled program that involves over 15 hours of weekly music instruction and practice. Another program is about to launch in Somerville, and several other organizations are working to establish similar initiatives.
New England Conservatory has had a warm association with El Sistema for over 12 years, spearheaded and guided until recently by NEC Dean Emeritus Mark Churchill. Dr. Churchill co-founded the Youth Orchestra of the Americas with NEC and El Sistema in 2001 and has since fostered ongoing relations though the YOA; two tours to Venezuela by the NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Benjamin Zander in 2001 and 2005; numerous faculty and student exchanges; the hosting of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in Boston in 2007; the creation of the Abreu Fellows Program with the support of Dr. Abreu and the TED organization in 2009; and the establishment of El Sistema USA, a networking, advocacy, and resource support system for the El Sistema movement in the US, also in 2009.
Dr. Abreu was awarded an honorary doctorate from NEC in 2002, and the first friendship agreement was signed by NEC President Daniel Steiner and Dr. Abreu in 2005. A full account of NEC’s and Boston history with El Sistema can be found in the recently published Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music by Tricia Tunstall (Norton, 2012)
According to NEC’s Ellen Pfeiffer, the recent signing “serves as an official declaration of the continued collaboration between El Sistema and NEC with the goal of fostering programs and projects that benefit the students, staff, faculty, and other constituents of both. Among the goals cited in the agreement are continuation of the Sistema Fellowship in its current form through 2014, a commitment to broadly share the work of the Sistema Fellowship throughout the United States and the world,” exchanges and residencies between students and faculty, and “joint advocacy in support of music as a catalyst for social change.”
Most of the Fellows in NEC’s third class (this year’s) already have job offers. Previous graduates are already deeply involved in the U.S. El Sistema network from Atlanta to Juneau, Los Angeles to Boston, to Durham. The Class of 2012-13, will be named in May.