José Abreu, the globally acclaimed founder of Venezuela's El Sistema youth orchestra, a project that offered thousands of poor children free music education, died Saturday. He was 78.
"My heart is overwhelmed,” said conductor and music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel. “The music and arts have lost one of its brightest figures. Maestro José Antonio Abreu taught us that art is a universal right and that inspiration and beauty irreversibly transform the soul of a child. … I am who I am today [because of him] and I owe it to Maestro Abreu’s generosity, humanity and vision. I feel an immense privilege to have shared a life next to someone of his dimension."
Dudamel, who brought El Sistema to the world’s attention more than a decade ago, has continued Abreu's mission, bringing its players on tour in the U.S. and incorporating its ideals into the L.A. Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles.
Abreu, born on May 7, 1939, in the small Andean city of Valera, Venezuela, began his music studies at age 9 before moving to Caracas to study composition.
Frustrated with the country's single orchestra, Abreu began El Sistema in 1975 in a garage with nine musicians. Known as Social Action for Music and National Network of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, the network has since expanded to 300 choirs and orchestras and has received awards from the Royal Swedish Academy and UNESCO.
With a mission of combating poverty through music education, Abreu is often credited with saving thousands of Venezuelan children from crime and poverty through the project, though some have been critical of what they saw as his top-down approach. Even so, his program has inspired others in other Latin American and European countries.
"Abreu has given life to a musical system with which young people can be safe from the dangers of the street, of crime, of drugs," said Simon Rattle, director of the Berlin Philharmonic, according to the El Sistema website.