The non-attendance of José Antonio Abreu, the founder of Venezuela’s El Sistema, at a much-vaunted press conference at the Southbank Centre, has left journalists puzzled.
Abreu, a somewhat reclusive figure who is not in good health, gives few interviews and his appearance was much anticipated. Several Venezuelan journalists suggested he pulled out a few days before the event because he feared questioning about his connections to Venezuelan regime. But this was denied by Eduardo Mendez, the director general of Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar, who said Abreu had ‘wanted to be here but at the last moment there were scheduling difficulties’. Mendez later described the difficulties as ‘a meeting which stretched from morning to evening to discuss the expansion of El Sistema’.
The press conference was part of a weekend of activities under the ‘Sounds Venezuela: Nucleo’ umbrella, two days of workshops and performances with students from In Harmony projects and other performance groups, and from Venezuela. The conference went ahead with Mendez, Christian Vasquez, conductor of the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, Gillian Moore, head of classical music at Southbank Centre and Shân Maclennan, creative director of learning & participation at Southbank Centre, all of whom praised the transforming influence of El Sistema on communities around the world.
Since its inception 39 years ago, more than half a million Venezuelan children have taken part in its music programmes. An estimated 2.5 million people around the world have been involved in allied projects.
In London over the past decade, the Southbank Centre has been at the heart of the social transformation through music movement in the UK, working closely with Abreu, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the dozens of young Venezuelan musicians who have come to the UK to work with their counterparts here. Comparing the state-funded Venezuelan system to music funding in the UK, Mendez was diplomatic in saying El Sistema ‘had not been built over-night’.
‘The state didn’t suddenly decide to give us support and it has been very hard work,’ he said. ‘But there comes a point where people realise that publicly funded music making can benefit the entire community.’
Both Mendez and the conductor Christian Vasquez emphasised their desire to see the expansion of El Sistema, throughout the world. There was particular mention of the possibility of using it in prisons and to help people with mental health issues.
‘There has already been a lot of research into the value and integrity of El Sistema in bringing about a decrease in violence with boys, of helping with special needs. As well as setting up more projects in other parts of the world, I’d like to see people pursuing research in some of the areas we haven’t yet looked at, such as music and mental health.’
Sistema England supports many programmes across England. You can help by donating money or instruments. For more information see: www.sistemaengland.org.uk/donate