After Hugo Chávez, What's Next for El Sistema?

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The passing of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on Tuesday evening has not only left a leadership vacuum in Latin America but brought a tinge of uncertainty to one of the country’s most admired cultural products: El Sistema, the vast network of regional music schools and youth orchestras that serve between 300,000 and 350,000 children and are a major source of national pride.

Over his 14-year presidency, Chávez not only came to embrace El Sistema but also became its most generous patron, his administration footing almost its entire annual operating budget. At the same time he consolidated presidential control over its operations in a move that was controversial in some quarters.

Since its founding in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician, El Sistema has flourished through seven different governments while educating some two million young people.

Mark Churchill is the director of El Sistema USA, a service organization that works with Sistema-inspired programs in the United States. “There’s very little danger that the course of El Sistema will be changed or threatened in any way,” he said in an interview. “There are many reasons for that. One is the immense popularity of El Sistema within Venezuela and the admiration of Abreu and the great alumni of El Sistema including Gustavo Dudamel and [Berlin Philharmonic bassist] Edicson Ruiz."

What's more, the program's leaders have protected it by keeping an apolitical profile. Still, nothing is entirely for certain. "Everything's a risk at this point in Venezuela,” said Churchill.

Indeed, in a move last month that initially sounded alarms on the Internet, the Chávez administration appointed a new administrator to the Simón Bolívar Music Foundation, the body that oversees the country’s national network of orchestras. While some interpreted this as a power grab by the dying leader, the new administrator, Jesse Chacon, went on national television to insist that he would not be taking over the program but reporting to its CEO, Eduardo José Méndez.

A government press release trumpeted that Chacon's role would be to enhance the “political effectiveness and revolutionary quality” of the program.

Chávez's embrace of El Sistema attracted some criticism in recent years, particularly from those who believed he was using it to burnish his own image. Chávez, a blustery populist, railed against high culture early in his presidency and dismantled Euro-centric art museums and dance companies. Stories of him sleeping through classical concerts were legion.

Churchill notes that Chávez initially didn’t understand the social mission of El Sistema. “But that was an educational process that Maestro Abreu quickly got to work on and was successful at,” he said. “Maestro Abreu’s methodology was to take whatever politician or supporter is important to the health of the program by the hand and bring them to the nucleo and see the children” at work, rehearsing and studying. A similar learning curve may face a future president.

Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan pianist with an international career, said on Tuesday that she remains optimistic about El Sistema’s future. “I can't imagine that anything will happen to it,” said Montero, who in 2011 composed Ex Patria, a piano piece denouncing the Chávez government. “I think as long as Jose Antonio Abreu is alive, it will continue to exist and thrive.”

Yet sounding note of caution, she added, “But frankly, I'm more concerned with the survival of the whole country. If Venezuela becomes even more polarized than it is now, there will be nothing left to salvage, including El Sistema.”

Audio: Jamie Bernstein Thomas, the writer and broadcaster who has been working on a documentary film about Play On, Philly, an El Sistema-modeled program, discusses Venezuela's future:

Photos: 1) Gustavo Dudamel and José Antonio Abreu at the Musical America Awards at Lincoln Center in Dec. 2012 (Brian Wise/WQXR) 2) Gabriela Montero (Colin Bell)