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Venezuela's Famous Youth Orchestra Faces Tough Times


Eduardo Mendez, newly named executive director of the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela better known as El Sistema, or The System, speaks during an interview at an auditorium in Caracas, Venezuela, March 26, 2018.

The new head of Venezuela's famed youth orchestra network says he will strive to uphold the program's legacy of musical excellence and social service as it faces one of the toughest periods in its history following the death of its charismatic founder.

In an interview at the network's Caracas headquarters, incoming director Eduardo Mendez said the program must overcome a crippling economic crisis that has forced hundreds of musicians to leave the country along with the passing of Jose Antonio Abreu, who created the orchestra network known as El Sistema.

"We will have to multiply into thousands of Abreus," Mendez said.

FILE - Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, known as El Sistema, attends an event by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra at Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 16, 2012.
FILE - Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras of Venezuela, known as El Sistema, attends an event by the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphonic Orchestra at Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 16, 2012.

Abreu, who died Saturday at age 78, was a consummate musician and astute politician who secured government support for El Sistema and turned it into one of Venezuela's showpiece programs. The network now runs around 300 community schools that have given children in poor neighborhoods an opportunity to study classical music. It has also produced a crop of world-renowned musicians, including Los Angeles Philharmonic Director Gustavo Dudamel.

Mendez acknowledged that steering the orchestra network through Venezuela's social and economic crisis will not be an easy task.

According to El Sistema's new director, 8 percent of the program's teachers have recently left the country to seek a better life abroad. The network's marquee Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has lost 42 percent of its musicians over the past six months, though most of the vacancies have been filled with younger musicians.

"It hasn't been easy to convince people to stay," Mendez said. "Many of these people are leaving in search of economic stability."

Mendez, who worked alongside Abreu for 15 years, said his priority will be to strengthen musical initiation programs and explore new genres in the network's academies.

According to El Sistema's own figures, 980,000 children and young musicians are currently participating in its programs throughout Venezuela.

Political tensions

But Mendez will also have to avoid conflicts between musicians and Venezuela's government, which has been accused by critics of using the music program as a propaganda tool.

FILE - Maestro Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the traditional New Year's Concert at the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, Jan. 1, 2017.
FILE - Maestro Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra during the traditional New Year's Concert at the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria, Jan. 1, 2017.

Tensions between El Sistema and Venezuelan officials surfaced last year when the network's star pupil, Gustavo Dudamel, criticized efforts by President Nicolas Maduro to install a constituent assembly dominated by government supporters that is seen by critics as another step toward dictatorship.

Maduro asked Dudamel to "not attack those of us who have been crucial to the expansion of the [musical] movement."

Shortly after the heated exchange, Venezuelan officials suspended two El Sistema tours through the United States and Asia, which were going to be conducted by Dudamel. No official explanation was given as to why the tours were canceled.

Mendez said Dudamel will continue to be El Sistema's creative director. Dudamel is expected to lead several concerts in Venezuela in August and September, and might also participate in an exhibition on El Sistema at a United Nations summit in Vienna in May.

When asked if he will allow his musicians to voice their political views, Mendez said he would not censure anyone.

"Everyone is responsible for his actions, and is responsible for saying or doing what they think is right," Mendez said.

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