José Antonio Abreu, who brought free classical music lessons to children in some of Venezuela’s poorest areas, created a widely emulated system of youth orchestras and saw his protégé…
His death was announced by the Simón Bolívar Musical Foundation, which runs the program he founded, El Sistema. He had been ill for several years.
Abreu, an economist and musician who proselytized for what he called the “social mission of art,” may have set out to use classical music as a means to engage the youth of Venezuela, but he wound up putting Venezuelan musicians onto some of classical music’s leading stages.
One product of the program, Dudamel, is now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the world’s most sought-after conductors. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which Abreu founded, has opened the season at Carnegie Hall and played at the Salzburg Festival and the Lucerne Festival, among other prestigious engagements.
“He gave me the arcana of music with the same vehemence with which he taught me that the right to beauty is inalienable,” Dudamel said in a statement, in which he called Abreu “an inspiration, an artist, a friend, a father, and a teacher.”
But Abreu and El Sistema have also drawn criticism at times for being closely tied to Venezuela’s leaders, whom they relied on for financial support. The program was nurtured for decades under disparate Venezuelan administrations, but became particularly associated with Hugo Chávez, the polarizing, populist president who died in 2013. It was then embraced by his successor, President Nicolás Maduro.
That relationship has appeared strained recently. After Dudamel denounced the government’s violent crackdowns on street protests last year, the government canceled two tours of Venezuelan orchestras he had planned to lead.
When Abreu founded what would become El Sistema in 1975, few would have predicted that it would became a major player in both classical music and Venezuelan politics. He tended to describe its mission as guided as much by social justice as musical ambition.
“For me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people,” Abreu told The New York Times Magazine in 2007. “As a musician, I had the ambition to see a poor child play Mozart. Why not? Why concentrate in one class the privilege of playing Mozart and Beethoven? The high musical culture of the world has to be a common culture, part of the education of everyone.”
José Antonio Abreu was born in Valera, Venezuela, on May 7, 1939, and began studying the piano when he was 9; he went on to study composition, the organ, the harpsichord and conducting. But he initially made his career as an economist and a planner, earning a degree at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, working as a professor and later serving in government as a culture minister. But he saw El Sistema as his life’s work.
He cut a frail, somewhat ascetic figure: He stopped drinking alcohol after having abdominal surgery for ulcers in 1973, and later gave up chocolate, which was described as his one indulgence, after learning he had diabetes. He often wore a woolen overcoat, even in the Venezuelan heat.
But he knew how to use the levers of power.
El Sistema grew from a gathering of 11 young musicians to a youth orchestra to a nationwide system of youth orchestras and choirs. It set up music centers, called núcleos, throughout the nation, offering free musical instruction to hundreds of thousands of children, and it formed a network of youth and children’s orchestras and choirs for its young students to perform in. Its motto, “Tocar y Luchar,” or “to play and to fight,” suggests the sense of struggle that permeates its ethos.
Its success brought worldwide attention and imitators: There are now youth orchestras inspired by El Sistema in more than 70 nations, including several in the United States, including the ambitious OrchKids program in Baltimore and the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA.
Deborah Borda got to know Abreu when she led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she established YOLA and hired Dudamel. “It was through the sheer force of his personality and determination that El Sistema came into life,” said Borda, who is now president and chief executive officer of the New York Philharmonic. She added: “He changed my life — not to mention literally thousands of others throughout the world.”
But there have also been critics. In a 2014 book called “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth,” Geoffrey Baker, who teaches in the music department at Royal Holloway, University of London, took a considerably dimmer view of the program and its founder, finding it “an opaque organization, verging on the secretive” and a “cult of leadership.”
Information on Abreu’s survivors was not immediately available.
It was not clear what would happen next to El Sistema, now that its founder is dead and its most famous alumni, Dudamel, has run afoul of the Maduro regime. Abreu had stepped down from running El Sistema in recent years because of illness.
Maduro paid homage to Abreu on Twitter, writing that he would continue his legacy. El Sistema, for its part, said on its website it would continue “playing, singing and fighting” — in his honor.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.