What next for Sistema?

The Teresa Carreño Orchestra rehearsing in Beijing this week (from the orchestra's Facebook page)
The Teresa Carreño Orchestra rehearsing in Beijing this week (from the orchestra’s Facebook page)

It seems hardly a week goes by without a Venezuelan orchestra going on tour, or the announcement of a Venezuelan orchestra going on tour. The main event of 2015 was the massive party in Milan in which a number of Fundación choirs and orchestras took the stage at La Scala. The Youth Orchestra of Caracas just wrapped up a tour to Lisbon and some minor Spanish and French destinations, and next out the door is the Teresa Carreño, recently arrived in China and Japan for concerts this week. Rounding out the roster, the Símon Bolívar will grace some less trodden European arenas early in the New Year before returning to Royal Festival Hall in London.

Typically exciting times, it seems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these activities are popular and/or sustainable. The scuttlebutt from hall managers, such that it is, suggests that European audiences for any orchestra save the Símon Bolívar headlined by Dudamel are proving harder to come by. Even the Teresa Carreño, a higher potential ensemble (to my ears, even if the potential remains unrealized), has struggled to fill houses of late, and the Juvenil de Caracas has yet to establish any kind of presence or name recognition. The result of this might be summed up in question baldly posed to me last week in Britain by a very senior arts manager: Is Sistema waning?

It all depends on what is meant by “Sistema,” as usual. I’ve been heartened in the last few years by the emergence of a much more serious level of study of the work in Venezuela, migrating away from the pro/e/motional fiction that characterized the earliest literature towards a middle ground of inquiry and productive skepticism. While there has been counterproductive skepticism, publications of that nature ultimately still serve to legitimize and further the study of the sector. Something is usually only worth investigating if it’s controversial.

More quantitatively, international program proliferation appears to be slowing, and perhaps for positive reasons. Growth in the past five years was relatively high, and a phase of consolidation was overdue. Growth is also now “net,” because some initial programs have either not survived, have relinquished their “Sistema” identity or have merged with partners. This was always inevitable, and this kind of sideways motion should not as yet be considered a measure of the health of the sector as a whole.

In terms of ticket sales for performances of Venezuelan ensembles outside of Venezuela, I have no data. But when current Fundación activities are examined from a corporate perspective, a few conclusions might be drawn. When any entity achieves market saturation, it has two options. It can open new markets, or offer a new product to the existing ones. Venezuela is doing both. The Fundación is deploying more orchestras and more ensembles of increasing youth to new destinations overseas. First it was the Bolívar, then the Teresa Carreño, then the Juvenil… and new this year, the Infantil. In a departure from an earlier strategy of hitting the 21st Century Grand Tour of European capitals, the Fundación is now sending orchestras to the secondary or tertiary centres of Luxembourg, Toulouse, Zaragoza and Essen. Lovely cities in their own right with rich cultural offerings, but not quite Paris or Rome. Berlin and London are still on the agenda, but only for the Bolívars. Asia is now of increasing importance (this might end up sounding like a Forbes column!) as the Fundación attempts to attract new audiences. Note that the Northern Americas are not particularly on the horizon: beyond Dudamel’s adoptive backyard of Los Angeles, there’s currently very little presence or interest in the rest of the US and Canada.

Orquesta in utero ad ex utero.
Orquesta in utero ad ex utero.

“Product development” continues unabated within Venezuela as well. This past year saw another incarnation of the aforementioned national “Infantil” orchestra, first convened in 2010, but now taking its first international steps. Boasting nearly 200 musicians the group tore (somewhat literally) through Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in its culminating performances. This surely satisfied the considerable international Sistema audience segment accustomed to and still demanding the pure spectacle of youth, size, sound, and coloured jackets, but as strategies go it’s the least sustainable. Simply put, there’s a hard and fast limit on how large the groups can get, and even more concretely, how young the ensemble membership can be… unless Venezuela has a strategy for Orquestas in Utero. Oh wait, they do.

To an extent it feels as though the Fundación has fallen into a Weberian trap of its own creation: having to maintain leadership of its own field through increasingly impressive, if not miraculous accomplishments. And it is a trap, as Max pointed out. At some point Venezuela won’t be able to fund the vastly expanded travel, at some point the children can’t get younger, and then…. what?

As for the domestic strategy, that was finally articulated only a year ago when Eduardo Mendez described it on BBC as the expansion of access to youth. This aligns with the international strategy quite clearly: they need to identify and develop more talent, and do it sooner, in order to drive the foreign touring. Concomitant with this new thrust is the abandonment of any real effort to measure direct social change, however it might have been defined, or offer any new vision of what social action through music might look like beyond young people synchronizing their motions in massive ensembles.

Reality check: the Fundación doesn’t give a damn what I think (quite rightly) and as long as the Venezuelan government keeps bankrolling the operations, as long as decent audiences turn out to hear the touring orchestras, they’ll keep this up. And when the money and the people in seats diminished, they’ll recalibrate or more likely, retreat into a relatively inert position of respected industry elder, relinquishing any claim to status as an innovator – much as Microsoft did for the tech industry.

Microsoft’s position and leadership in its sector was once viewed as unassailable. Now products from Redmond are the mainstay only of those parts of world a decade behind the curve in tech adoption. Innovation and advancement have come from the smaller, more aggressive players unencumbered by monolithic bureaucracies and unburdened by expectations. Which means, to complete the analogy, that the future of Sistema lies outside of Venezuela. It’s now in the hands of the programs and researchers around the world looking to connect the group practice of music with quantifiable social benefit. The fact that the founders passed on the chance to dig deeply into the question of practice is immaterial: there are enough models outside of Venezuela for the same questions to be asked and the same answers to be sought now. So in answer to the question if Sistema is waning, I would argue that the idea of social action through music is only just now in its material ascendancy. It too may wane if, after what are now years of activity and billions of dollars in investment, the sector should fail to produce unique dividends, but then that will be its failure, not Venezuela’s. That hasn’t happened yet, but even as we celebrate our control over our own destinies, it’s good to remember one thing: just as time is running out for Venezuela’s moment in the sun, it’s running out for us too.






4 thoughts on “What next for Sistema?

  1. Very good Jonathan. This part to me is the crux of it, and certainly applies in what we are doing here in Australia:

    “It’s now in the hands of the programs and researchers around the world looking to connect the group practice of music with quantifiable social benefit.” Absolutely.

    I think that two things are in force with the ‘waning’ of the VZ El Sistema – firstly, the novelty is wearing off. They are now no longer “amazing” although musically they are still pretty great. And secondly the critics have had an effect – Geoff Baker and others have questioned the integrity of the shiny edifice of the Foundation; this is probably strongest in the UK but others have taken note too in Europe. Its “amazing” is being questioned a bit more critically. Even you are questioning its largesse and even the unrealised “potential” of their orchestras.

    One of the fundamental problems as I see it, is the complete and mysterious lack of evidence through research that El Sistema in Venezuela is truly transforming children and young people at risk. In the rest of the world we are very keen to take on the investigation of whether positive psychosocial change and academic change is occurring. The work that Sistema Scotland and the Scottish Government and their universities have been doing to understand what effects and benefits are occurring, is exactly that. Also here in Australia, in New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere – research and analysis by internationally recognised teams is taking place. And early indications are that it really is working.

    It’s a difficult one to really “prove” because the programs need to go for a while to be able to transform lives and allow us to gather enough data and evidence to establish value. But we are all out there doing this research now, so the light is being shone in on this entire concept. We all need to move from anecdote to the tangible. From subjective to qualitative and quantitative – even though we know that music is intrinsically important and valuable to us and our children. Why? Because it’s only through results that we can garner the funds and support we need to sustain the programs and extend – and because WE need to know it works. It’s not simply about creating cracking classical bands; for most of us it truly is about changing lives and long-term and lasting benefit for the children, the community and the society in which we all live. That’s certainly the primary reason why I am doing it. The flashy amazingly amazing classical bands are NOT the goal, the children’s lives and the health of our communities ARE.

    I wonder if in Venezuela if the brand and the large amazing orchestras are more important now. For them it is the way they garner funds to sustain their programs. It’s a flaw, that we all have to deal with: how to remain true to your goals of social transformation without selling out to filthy lucre.

  2. Have seen this plateau occur in the Suzuki movement with the astonishing revelation that all children can learn to play a musical instrument from 3 and up, even if their parents are not musicians. Now we are not impressed unless it is our child. There is also the realization that it takes input and resources to make it happen and many people wonder if it is a luxury that is worth it. Unfortunately, it became the domain of those who could afford such instruction and realized it would at those extra points to their college entrance exams.

    After attending a kindergarten celebration in Japan where all of the children recited 100 haiku from memory Dr. Suzuki asked the foreign teachers what impressed them the most. I expressed my amazement that learning to make music could give children the ability to remember all of these haiku at such a young age, even without knowing the meaning of all the words. He was rather non-plussed about my observation. He had observed this phenomenon for so long he didn’t need research to tell him the obvious any longer. To read Kraus”s research was like hearing the echo to an axiom of basic anthropology. Our musical development lead to our linguistic development.

    What Sensei faced and what Abreu faces now is how to demonstrate what music can do for the development of children and the transformation of human culture for those who need it most so it doesn’t get bought, owned and put on a shelf to collect dust for save keeping by those who would keep the status quo. By those who would be the gatekeepers and control access to the engine that fires human potential and cultural destiny.

    Understandably, El Sistema has sent its best to North America, Asia and Europe. But there is still South Asia and Africa on the horizon. I am already getting inquiries from teachers in Africa about Suzuki. An this does not yet include that horizon of accessibility to special needs children. Much, much yet to do.

    1. Cynthia, so sorry I didn’t approve this earlier. Just didn’t get the notification of the comment, nothing more.

  3. No problem. The web can be temperamental.

    I just noticed conversation discussing El Sistema Kenya on the FB Suzuki Teaching Exchange. Wondering if there is a map of what is happening on the African Continent where music education is concerned. I know there are young people searching on their cell phones because they are finding my YouTube channel. One of them found the violin groups on FB. Is El Sistema Global mobile friendly? This might be important to reaching and sharing resouces to places with limited infrastructure.

    I did some poking at Suzuki Association in Europe which is supposed to include activity in Africa. If the North American Association can make a contribution in S.A., surely current headlines beg us to be as proactive as possible in Africa and the M.E.

    This weekend it seems we can’t get Teaching Artist from an Iraqi orchestra into the ghetos of France fast enough.

    I’m going to keep say those prayers out loud more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s