This may be controversial.
Yesterday I got promotional email about an event the LA Philharmonic is cosponsoring — a three-day symposium in May about El Sistema, and the attempt to transplant it to the US. The other sponsors are El Sistema USA and the League of American Orchestras.
And of course we all know the connection. Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s proudest son, is the LA Phil’s music director. The LA Phil is engaged, bigtime, in the attempted transplant. As are others. When American classical music people learned how El Sistema was teaching classical music to kids throughout Venezuela, even in little towns, the excitement was huge.
I went to concerts by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall, with Dudamel conducting, and the audience went crazy. As well it might have. The concert was terrific. But the excitement went beyond the performance everyone heard. People exploded with hope for the future. This was the answer to classical music’s problems! Total strangers stopped each other in the aisles — I’m not making this up — to embrace the possibilities, in voices full of hope and wonder.
And so now the LA Phil — which has started a youth orchestra on the El Sistema model — will talk for three days about these things, in sessions with subjects like, “What are the main transferable elements of El Sistema we are seeing so far in the U.S.?”
Well, here’s one element of El Sistema I hope won’t be transferred. As far as I know, they don’t do new music. They don’t, as far as I know, train or encourage composers. If anyone knows more about this — or has contrary information — I’d love to hear it. But an explosion of classical music among kids in which all the music is old strikes me as truly unfortunate, if not…well, I want to say “disastrous,” but maybe that’s too strong. It’s certainly a movement where I couldn’t feel at home.
Xavier Losada, a Venezuelan composer, pointed me to a Venezuelan website, where another Venezuelan composer, Emilio Mendoza, deplores what’s going on. Some excerpts from his paper, translated from Spanish with lots of help from Google Translate:
Venezuela is a special case because of the existence of a large number of symphony orchestras, among professionals, youth and children, also distributed throughout the national territory. We have a huge orchestral platform that completely ignores our music…
…after an unimaginable development budget for 35 years of symphonic music for young people, we have a country with hundreds of orchestras, on a scale seen nowhere else in the world, but without the slightest financial or administrative provision to encourage the creation and dissemination of symphonic works by composers in our country. We were removed completely from this important musical development in Venezuela.
In a country whose musical reputation has reached the highest levels of international attention…with an unsurpassed investment by the government, sustained for over three decades, and with an orchestral platform unparalleled anywhere in the world for its quality and scope, it is even more contradictory that composition is separated from the boom going on in our music. [He uses the English word “boom.”] It was a big mistake not having built it in from the start of this important
national development. This “Venezuelan Musical Marvel” is devoted exclusively to performing the music of dead composers and the foreign repertoire commonly known as “classical,” stretching from the pre-Baroque to just the beginning of the twentieth century. Only recently have some Venezuelan pieces joined the regular repertoire in order to enrich orchestral tours abroad, where doubtless visitors are required to play music from their country of origin. In this sense, the Venezuelan musical contribution to the outside world, along with the attention the media gives to “Dudamel-mania,” is really
ephemeral, a media bubble, because the phenomenon is judged by its superficial impact, and is not based in enduring works that could redefine the
art of music, offer new styles and forms of expression, and be identified as uniquely Venezuelan.
Mendoza, as I read him (again with the help of Google Translate), seems both outraged and despairing.
Thoughts on this? I’m sorry if I seem negative — I’m certainly not against kids learning classical music — but what I’m reporting here really troubles me.