Arts & Entertainment

El Sistema bringing Venezuela’s top-notch musical product to Europe’s UN HQ

By Antonio Broto

Geneva, Apr 19 (EFE).- The European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, the site nine years ago of the most recent international tour by maestro Jose Antonio Abreu, on Wednesday hosted an emotional concert by the National Children’s Symphony of Venezuela, one of the orchestras that makes up the prizewinning “El Sistema” created by the Venezuelan conductor.

The 170 children in the orchestra, who have now given their first two concerts abroad in Geneva, on Wednesday are performing works by Tchaikovsky, Strauss and even a madrigal by Abreu himself, in the Human Rights Hall, one of the most impressive UN venues decorated by Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo.

“It’s been a marvelous experience in an incredible week. We’ve been welcomed very nicely,” symphony director and Abreu’s nephew Andres David Ascanio, told EFE.

Ascanio is one of the many Venezuelans who was musically trained from an early age thanks to a system of 442 El Sistema centers throughout the country.

“The last tour (Abreu) had before returning to Caracas, and unfortunately where he became sick, in 2014, was right here, and it’s very significant for us to return to this place and play not only for him but also for our entire country, for the entire world,” Ascanio said.

The Geneva tour began last weekend with a recital at Victoria Hall, a beautiful 19th-century theater at which great conductors over the past two centuries have performed and where the members of the orchestra, ranging in age from 9 to 15, were warmly applauded.

Two of them, Reggie Ortiz and Marianne Varela, both 14, gave EFE their impressions of their first trip outside Venezuela, which they are hoping to repeat in late 2023 with another European tour.

“It’s an experience I’m never going to forget,” said Ortiz, a violinist who says he’s a big fan of Tchaikovsky – a composer who is very much a part of El Sistema’s repertoire – but also of classical composers such as Saint Saens, Brahms and Mozart.

Varela, who has loved the viola since she went to a cousin’s concert at age 6, spoke about her gratitude to El Sistema and also about the sacrifice felt by many of the boys and girls who have been a part of it.

“It’s a really great family that gives you everything gratis, that practically gives you an instrument as a gift,” she said, adding that in return you have to make an unbreakable promise to give your all to music.

“You have to be very persevering and constant. If you go one day without playing and you don’t care, you’re going to lose your (playing) level quickly,” she said.

The concerts in Geneva are part of the events to pay tribute to Abreu (1939-2018) on the fifth anniversary of his death both inside and outside the South American country by the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choruses of Venezuela founded by the maestro in 1975 and known simply as “El Sistema.”

In its 48 years, children and teens from all over Venezuela have received classical musical training at its many centers around the country, work that has been recognized with Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts and the UNESCO International Music Prize.

“We’re in a time of expansion and the aim is to train two million boys and girls as part of the task left to us by maestro Abreu,” said Ascanio, who also noted that more than 70 countries have adapted the Venezuelan system into educational programs inspired by him.

El Sistema barely halted its international tours during the coronavirus pandemic, with 2020 being the only year its orchestras did not perform abroad, and thanks to state, private and international business funding it has been able to continue to operate even during Venezuela’s difficult economic situation.

“Multilateral entities like UNICEF and the UN Development Program have helped us,” Abreu’s nephew noted.

El Sistema has a long relationship with the UN: its orchestras have not only performed at the international body’s European headquarters in Geneva but also at its New York location and at other UN sites in Paris and Vienna.

In keeping with the performance on Wednesday at the Human Rights Hall, Ascanio recalled his uncle’s words: “He often said that perhaps the (Universal) Declaration of Human Rights needed to add the right to education in art, in music.”

El Sistema in 2021 made it into the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest orchestra after gathering 12,000 musicians to play Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave” (Slavonic March), and among its most celebrated former pupils are Grammy Award winner Gustavo Dudamel, the music director for the New York Philharmonic (in 2025-2026) and Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as the Paris Opera.

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