If you could create a culture of classical music from scratch, how would you do it? That’s precisely the sort of question Venezuelan José Antonio Abreu asked himself 30 years ago when he began his classical music course which would evolve into what is now the Fundacion del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles (Foundation of the State for the National System of the Orchestras Youth and Children), which is commonly referred to in Venezuela as FESNOJIV or El Sistema.
Back in 1975 Abreu may not have realized that his program would become the classical music juggernaut it is today but he quickly discovered that its growth would be exponential. Within the first week of rehearsals for his youth orchestra, membership in the ensemble nearly tripled each day. Today, FESNOJIV has seen just over 400,000 children pass through its programs and now serves approximately a quarter of a million children each year.
“You can’t imagine what is going to hit you! It ought to be compulsory for every American politician to come down to Venezuela to see what music can do for a society. It’s like what happened to the desert in Palestine when the Israelis started irrigating the land!”
I wasn’t entirely certain what would be waiting for me when I arrived in Caracas but I knew that the “sociological benefit” arguments for classical music are discussed to death in the United States. I’ve had those conversations with so many people that I can practically recite everyone’s dialogue before they open their mouth. Fortunately, Ben’s prognostication would end up adding more than just new banter to the discussion.
My first encounter with students of the FESNOJIV program was during a reception (which is a polite word for a really loud and swinging dinner party featuring Venezuelan music played on unique local instruments) attended by older students and administrators of the FESNOJIV program as well as their guests from the NECYPO. All in all there ended up being a few hundred people in attendance.
Unfortunately, the American students were detained due to some travel mishaps so I had ample time to interact with the Venezuelan musicians. I was immediately struck by how interested and interesting they all were. It was a simple matter to sit down next to any of them and strike up a conversation. Most spoke at least some English and I was fortunate enough to have a translator functioning as my permanent shadow.
These musicians ranged in age from 16 through 24 and were members of Sinfonica de la Juventud Venezolana Simon Bolivar, one of the FESNOJIV program’s top orchestras. This orchestra is not only part of the FESNOJIV program but it is also an ensemble which pays the musicians for performances and to teach; think of it as something like the New World Symphony program on steroids.
I quickly discovered that the vast majority of these young musicians began studying around four years of age. When I asked one violinist how long he had studied his instrument he looked at me with a quizzical look and said, “I’ve been a violinist all my life”, as though there couldn’t possibly be any other answer. This was representative of how the vast majority of Venezuelan musicians talked about their music studies; it wasn’t a separate component of their existence, it was intertwined with their lives.
The evening was alive with a palpable sense of camaraderie and association that is unique to any group of people who share a strong common bond of music. When the American students finally arrived they received a warm welcome and sat at large tables alongside the Venezuelans. Everyone enjoyed the music, food, and the spirit of the evening.
I left that evening with a great sense of who these people were and how they envisioned themselves but I still had no idea what they sounded like or how the FESNOJIV program functioned. Camaraderie and warm hearts are all fine and dandy but what about the real essence of the program; has this 30 year old course produced musicians capable of delivering an artistic product worth recognition?
More importantly, even if the program warranted artistic merit I still had no idea about whether or not it would have any value outside of Venezuela. Could this program matter to the rest of the world of classical music?