Critic’s Notebook: El Sistema founder, Gustavo Dudamel are targets of scathing new book

The founder of the National System of Children and Youth Orchestras, Jose Antonio Abreu, and the president and chief executive officer of Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, greets a young Venezuelan musician during a concert by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra in Caracas in 2012.
(Leo Ramirez / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times Music Critic

Everyone loves El Sistema, Venezuela’s revolutionary music education program — which serves hundreds of thousands of students, many in the barrios — and produced Gustavo Dudamel. Its founder, José Antonio Abreu, has been heralded as a national treasure and living saint. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Sistema’s star ensemble, is one of the world’s most thrilling orchestras.

Or so we have been bamboozled to believe by a gushing world press, according to Geoffrey Baker’s new book, “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth.” It portrays Abreu as the “The Philanthropic Ogre,” “a man of few convictions beyond the pursuit of power” and a maestro of “lavish and self-congratulatory spectacle.”

Dudamel is “Rolex Man,” lacking the “the intellectual tools or music education to take his interpretations to the highest level.” Instead he has become a fat-cat conductor hanging out in his Hollywood mansion when not posing for luxury watch ads.

Meanwhile, Abreu reigns over Sistema and its $100-million-plus budget like Big Brother, according to the book. Functioning like something between a Caracas cult and a classical-music Enron, the program is rife with corruption, maladministration, discrimination, nepotism, favoritism, bullying, poor pay and working conditions, strife between management and teachers and exploitation of staff and teachers. Dissent is outlawed. Sexual abuse appears not to be.


Where to begin with this dangerously flawed study?

A well-regarded specialist in Latin American music education, Baker, who teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London, says his first encounter with the Bolívars was an exhilarating concert at the London Proms in 2007. It made him eager to know more, and three years later he set out to Venezuela to study the Sistema model.

But what he found was not what he expected. Again and again he was approached by mostly former members of Sistema whose experience did not equate with the righteous narrative so expertly provided by Abreu’s image-polishers. And while Baker insists that he has nothing to prove other than studying and reporting what he encountered, he describes his work as activist ethnomusicology on behalf of marginalized voices.

In fact, just about everything he discovered about Sistema seems to offend Baker’s personal principles about the intent of orchestras, institutions and education. He rails against the cult of personality of Abreu and his sidekick, Dudamel.

As a scholar, Baker seeks empirical support for Sistema’s claims of achieving its social goals but can find no proof that the huge investment is effective. Nor can he find evidence to support the program’s demographic boosts, what with the number of kids from middle-class backgrounds who participate and the high dropout rate among the more disadvantaged. But might not that suggest Sistema is far less class-oriented than is typical in Venezuela’s unequal society?

Baker is uneasy with the style of teaching that Sistema uses, the traditional music-education process of endless rehearsal and rote learning. He has problems with the very notion of the orchestra as a patriarchal institution, where the essence is to obey the will of the conductor. He likens forming orchestras of poor children in the barrios a contemporary version of 17th century Jesuit missionaries civilizing the natives.

Portraying Abreu as a cross between Steve Jobs and Kim Jong Il, Sistema’s supreme leader comes across as a “snake charmer” and “neo-liberal stooge” with an unsavory political background. Baker accuses Abreu, who studied both economics and music, of extracting vast funds from the government with his dubious claims of social good and then spending the money on lavish facilities in Caracas while neglecting the outlying nucleos, or music schools.

Baker is also dubious of Abreu’s emphasis on excellence, developing the finest talents for the showcase Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, and then spending a small fortune touring around the world, such as playing at the fancy-schmancy Salzburg Festival. That it also appears at the populist Proms, where Baker found his own exhilaration, doesn’t seem to count.

There are systematic problems with Sistema. That has long been recognized. Some are as serious as Baker suggests. But Baker misrepresents what Sistema does, stands for, accomplishes and those in it.

The portrait of the conductor is more ludicrous that the parody of him in the new Amazon TV comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle.” Dudamel did appear in an ad for Rolex when he first became music director in L.A., which Baker claims created a significant image problem for him, especially back home. Yet he ignores the telling first-year image of Dudamel leading a free concert for the city at the Hollywood Bowl or starting an education program in L.A. There is also no acknowledgment that Rolex then became an official sponsor of the L.A. Phil.

Baker downplays Dudamel’s role in Venezuela because Dudamel didn’t happen to be there when Baker was. He also points to the discrepancy between Dudamel’s high fees and what rank-and-file orchestra players make. But he doesn’t mention that Dudamel and his wife, Eloísa Maturén, have already, in their early 30s, formed a foundation for music education or that Dudamel does not take a salary for what is a punishing amount of work in Venezuela, including as music director of Bolívars.

Angelenos don’t need to be told about Dudamel’s capacity for artistic growth or great curiosity. Baker accuses the conductor, Abreu and everything Sistema stands for as being same old same-old, as ultra-conservatism passing for revolution. Yet Dudamel, whose whole approach to music was learned from Abreu, is today’s single most adventurous and chance-taking major conductor. Rather than relying on standard repertory and being irrelevant, Dudamel has, in five of his six programs with the L.A. Phil this season, performed music by a living American composer. You won’t find that kind of thing anywhere else.

Abreu is clearly no saint. But accusing him of promoting empty spectacle is gross oversimplification. Safety in numbers is essential in so dangerous a country, and large masses, such as huge orchestras and choruses, create a sense of comfort. Abreu is certainly not above using hocus pocus to get what he needs from the government. Moreover, he is more than willing to serve whomever is in power for what he believes to be the greater good. This involves a moral calculus more complex than Baker addresses.

More transparency at El Sistema is clearly called for. But Baker, who produces little actual hard evidence, is not up to penetrating Sistema’s secrecy. His feet-on-the-ground reporting comes from his own visits to nucleos and talking with disgruntled musicians who have various axes to grind. For sources, Baker makes little distinction between relevant or dated reports, academic papers or even questionable bloggers. He seems not to have spoken to Abreu, Dudamel or other top Sistema brass.

That there are charges of sexual abuse, for instance, is disturbing. But what is being done about this is anyone’s guess. Baker says that he was not about to make an official inquiry for fear of “jeopardizing my research.”

Baker is surely correct that El Sistema hasn’t transformed as many lives as it claims. Baker questions the official numbers of students, as have others, and has no new data to offer, but a conservative estimate is that at least a million children have passed through the program in its 40-year history. The numbers remain impressive. While not a model society, the program does teach kids in a violent country to work together for a common goal, giving credence to Abreu’s claims for creating better citizens.

The cost of Abreu’s emphasis on excellence may put a premium on dedication over creativity as an early-childhood group activity, but that too is an education in citizenship. Let Dudamel serve as the example that Sistema-style discipline does not necessarily create Sistema clones.

More important, Sistema’s achievement of excellence gives the country one thing it desperately needs at the moment: something to feel good about. That excellence, after all, is what drew Baker to Venezuela in the first place.

Twitter: @markswed