For several nights this month, London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted a vast orchestra. The Teresa Carreño youth orchestra is the latest generation of young musicians to emerge from El Sistema, Venezuela’s ground-breaking project to bring classical music to the poorest children. They are taking Europe by storm on their current tour – not just because they can play. Everyone else, it seems, now wants to copy them.
These 14 to 19-year-olds grew up in Venezuela’s slums with little education and not much to hope for in life. And here, with their 12 double basses and about 60 violins, they are giving Beethoven’s 5th fresh force and a whole new layer of meaning. Maestro Abreu, now 81, started El Sistema 35 years ago and has been officially a UNESCO ambassador since the 1990s, with the mission to develop a global youth orchestra network. But in reality, it’s all sorts of people and organisations who have started up similar musical projects in different countries without any supervision. In the past few years, such projects have proliferated in countries as varied as the UK, Brazil and South Africa.
“Only two years ago, people were still wondering whether this model was transferable to different countries,” said Ricardo Castro who runs a project in Bahia, Brazil. “We are all finding out that in our own different versions, El Sistema works everywhere.”
Pilot studies for a programme called In Harmony in England have shown how learning to play classical music concentrates minds, gives kids confidence and makes them better communicators. In one school in Lambeth, literacy rates have gone from 36 per cent in 2009 to 84 per cent in 2010. Numeracy rates have shot up too – from 35 per cent in 2009 to 75 per cent in 2010, according to programme director Julian Lloyd Webber.
A man in the audience chips in to explain that he’s been teaching eight-year-olds in Uganda to play the trumpet for years and watching it transform their lives. “We all know this system works,” he says. “There’s no rubber stamp. The brand is free for anyone.”
The Venezuelan model is also challenging the very perception that classical music is a serious matter for intensely serious people. At the end of their concerts, the Teresa Carreño don football-style Venezuela tracksuits and jump about, twizzling their double basses.
Venezuela’s socialist government has given El Sistema its full support and broadened its reach across the country. In other countries, government funding is tight so the scope is more limited. In America, explains Jonathan Govias, a fellow of the New England Conservatory in Boston, “there is a certain amount of fear and distrust” at an institutional level. But small El Sistema-style orchestras are popping up across the US nevertheless.
Maestro Abreu sits quietly nodding and listening with apparent satisfaction. Venezuela’s northern neighbour may be the last country his little revolution conquers. But it looks like it will happen, though maybe not in Abreu’s lifetime.