Jose Antonio Abreu was born in Valera, Venezuela. He grew up with many interests and ample ambition to pursue each of them. He went to university and established himself as an economist, earning a PhD in Petroleum Economics. He became involved in Venezuelan politics, and established himself as a Deputy in the Congress of Venezuela. But Abreu’s true passion was for music – he studied piano, organ, and harpsichord at the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy. Within ten years, he was awarded the prestigious Symphonic Music National Prize. Just eight years later, in 1975, Abreu’s greatest work was born into reality. This project is now known all around the world as El Sistema.
The National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela, which is now simply called El Sistema, quickly became a model for how youth education and development programs should be run. Under Abreu’s direction, the program targeted young people from the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas of Venezuela. These children, born into a world of drugs and violence, were led into the world of music. They learned self-discipline, teamwork, tolerance, community, and accomplishment – for their maestro knew that he must re-shape these young minds in order to re-route the path of his country. Within just two years of forming, El Sistema’s burgeoning youth orchestra had achieved success in an international competition in Scotland. This served as the proof that the Venezuelan government needed to see El Sistema’s potential – public funding has been an important key to El Sistema’s expansion and continued success ever since.
Jose Antonio Abreu and his organization have won many awards and received much recognition from leaders all around the world. El Sistema received the IMC-UNESCO International Music Prize in 1993, while Abreu was chosen as a UNESCO Special Ambassador to help develop a global network of youth orchestras and choirs. In 2009, Abreu received the TED Prize and the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Award. The United States, United Kingdom, Portugal have all implemented programs associated with and modeled upon El Sistema, while much of Latin America has established a student exchange program with the Venezuelan program.
These awards have certainly bolstered the cause and ideals that El Sistema has come to represent in its nearly forty years of activity, but Abreu’s true legacy is tied to the young minds that he helped to cultivate. Perhaps the most recognized of these in the U.S. is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Director Gustavo Dudamel, but there are countless others who have found salvation in classical music and the lessons that Abreu helped to teach them. Today, El Sistema oversees 125 youth orchestras in Venezuela, with well over 300,000 children in attendance as students and players. Jose Antonio Abreu’s vision and leadership has surely led El Sistema past even his wildest hopes and expectations. Yet the fight must continue to press on, for there are still children being born into a life without harmony and without melody. Following Abreu’s example, we will push towards a more just and more concordant future.