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How an Orchestra saved Venezuela's children 

How an Orchestra saved Venezuela's children

How an Orchestra saved Venezuela's children

Posted: Tuesday, 18th November 2008

For more than 30 years an extraordinary music project has been running in Venezuela in an attempt to transform the lives of the nation’s poorest children. The catchily-titled Fundación del Estado para el Sistema de Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela – the Sistema for short – has been using classical music to tackle the social problems of a country where 60% of the population live below the poverty line. By offering free instruments and tuition through a network of after-school centres all over the country, the Sistema has kept thousands of children away from the drugs, alcohol and gang-related violence of the streets and has led to the creation of 30 professional orchestras in a country that had only 2 before it started. Currently, 275,000 children attend the Sistema’s schools and many of them play in one of the 125 youth orchestras.

At the pinnacle of the system stands the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under its music director Gustavo Dudamel who is himself a product of the Sistema. Acclaimed at performances at the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, the orchestra has just completed a week-long residency at the Salzburg Festival where Alan Yentob met them, Gustavo Dudamel and the man who set up the Sistema in 1975, José Antonio Abreu. The documentary also tells the back stories of three players whose lives have been transformed by their involvement with the Sistema: viola player Jhoanna Sierralta, violinist and conductor Diego Matheuz and percussionist Felix Mendoza.

The Sistema’s success has attracted the attention of the likes of Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle who have both been to Venezuela to work with its young musicians and its alumni are making an impact around the world. Dudamel is now Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and next year becomes Music Director of the LA Philharmonic. At the age of 17, double bass player Edicson Ruiz became the youngest-ever member of the Berlin Philharmonic. Violinist Alexis Cárdenas has graduated from the Sistema to an international career as a soloist.

Now the Sistema is coming to the UK. A project called The Big Noise has just started on the Raploch estate in Stirling putting classical string instruments into the hands of every child in their first year at primary school. England too is following suit with the In Harmony project chaired by cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Whether the principles of the Sistema can have the same affect in the UK as they have had in Venezuela remains to be seen.

How an Orchestra saved Venezuela's children:
Tuesday 18 November, BBC1 10.35pm



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