Caracas diary: Meeting the youngest musicians of El Sistema
The Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday had a free day from its performances of Mahler symphonies with Gustavo Dudamel in Caracas, Venezuela, and spent it on an excursion to a tropical rum farm outside of town. The media, however, only got as far as a race track at the edge of town.
It's not what you think.
The track, which is surrounded by dangerous barrios, was closed, but not the betting office. That has been converted to the Núcleo La Riconada, and there I met Christhien Diaz, a small, quiet but not shy boy of 13 who is studying percussion. He is one of 2,000 music students here, in one of the largest and oldest of Venezuela's more than 300 núcleos. In them, children, beginning as young as 2 and most often living in poverty, are provided instruments and world-class musical training for free for the rest of their youth.
I endorse its utopian ideals, namely that music can be a tool of social good. But I was concerned about the possibility of the government also using music as a tool for social engineering. The Soviets and the Nazis had successful music education programs that did just that. Maybe that is why Venezuelans stopped calling their state-financed program for hundreds of thousands of students, "The System," although Sistema is still how the program is widely known.
Christhien was one of 10 children his age or younger presented to reporters for questioning. We asked them to name their favorite composers. Core repertory is at the heart of Fundamusical Bolívar's system, so Beethoven was, unsurprisingly, the most common answer. Tchaikovsky came up, as did Mahler. Christhien, however, said a name pronounced in a way hard to understand. I asked him to write it down. He got that a little wrong to, but I recognized it as Alan Hovhaness.
The mystically tinged Armenian composer lived in Seattle and wrote 67 seldom-heard symphonies. The centennial of Hovhaness' birth last year didn't get much attention in the U.S. But Christhien could name three Hovhaness pieces, only one of which, the Second Symphony ("Mysterious Mountain") I've ever managed to hear live.
From the start 37 years ago, El Sistema stressed conformity. Kids across the country learn to play the same standard repertory pieces the same way. When they are then brought together in national orchestras, they are on the same page.
To watch and hear the Simón Bolívar Symphony, the model ensemble of the program -- which is about to join the L.A. Phil in a monster performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony here Saturday -- is to be floored by a huge orchestra's unprecedented and thrilling unanimity. But is there a too-controlling side to that?
Christhien certainly demonstrated a clear and proud musical independence of mind. Better still, every kid there really did appear to be an individual -- committed, joyful and proud –- learning to function in society for a common good.
That learning concept is advanced and organic. Most children begin at ages 5 to 7 by singing in a chorus. For their first two years, they learn to read music, to move (the system is very physical) and get ear training. All the while, they observe the slightly older students in their orchestras, and begin to choose what instrument they want to learn.
By the time they reach a beginning orchestra, they are really ready. We heard youngsters who had only had their instruments for three months already rehearsing the overture to Bizet's "Carmen." They were playing from memory so that they could learn to follow their conductor who had himself come through Sistema and been a conducting student of Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of the program. The young conductor had an excellent stick technique and was now the head of La Riconada.
Those children who arrive too young for the chorus are taught to make string instruments out of papier maché on which to first learn. These are constructed at home with the help of parents, who are then brought closely into the Fundamusical family. Each instrument is unique, and some are really beautiful and original. Already there is a place for individuality.
Núcleo La Riconada operates after school, and at 5 p.m. the students head home to do their homework. Some have to walk through perilous neighborhoods. But they are said to be safe in their núcleo T-shirts. Gangs may not respect much else in this murder capital, but they are apparently superstitious about the Sistema. Perhaps Fundamusical proves that even some sorts of musical social engineering have genuine value.
-- Mark Swed, reporting from Caracas, Venezuela
Upper photo: An orchestra of children playing paper instruments at La Riconada. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: A home-made papier maché violin. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times