The Latin Grammy Awards, whose ceremony has the perfume of novelty, the shine of a platinum disc, is glorified in its own right this year (2009) for a simple reason: the grand prizewinner never worked in the register of prizes and ovations, but in something much more difficult to attain. This award, that does so much for the self-esteem of Latin Americans, today highlights the work of someone who radically transformed educational concepts. Maestro José Antonio Abreu, highly respectful of formalities, knows well the language of high ceremony and chooses nevertheless the most eloquent discourse: simplicity. “I do not come to receive this prize for myself,” he tells us, as he did when he received the Prince of Asturias Award for creating something the whole world admires. “I come in the name of the youth of Venezuela, in the name of our National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras [El Sistema].” A brief reflection reveals the genius of this unique situation: the Grammys always give awards by category, to idols venerated by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, but in this case the logic of stardom is inverted – the award is given to someone who has devoted himself to venerating the hundreds of thousands or millions of idols that are the youth of Venezuela. Employing the systematic application of excellence as the goal for all teaching, his respect for the intelligence of children is practiced through a simple principle: do not underestimate them. Present them with the highest challenges. Offer all possible tools for study, but do not lower or cut down the steps of difficulty to dilute and impoverish the material studied, blunting its demands. This is the great and only secret of development, the only true generosity.
In 1977, after barely three years in operation, Abreu’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra mounted Stravinsky’s Les Noces – a very difficult score – under the direction of distinguished Mexican conductor Carlos Chávez, and prepared tours to Scotland, Colombia, and Mexico. Ten years later, with El Sistema in full swing, the Orchestra interpreted The Rite of Spring in the Teresa Carreño Theater in Caracas under the direction of the colossal Zubin Mehta – a historic concert. In less than fifteen years, the country had a superb symphonic orchestra built entirely in Venezuela, with branches in all the provinces. Almost thirty years after that first great journey to Scotland, in the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome (September 2006), Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra broke the record: half an hour of standing ovations for a memorable Mahler Fifth.
These are just a few points in this superhuman trajectory that continues its ascent. Venezuela is not a worldwide musical power for its tours and prizes, but for what happens in the depths of its social fabric. There lie the stars of this Grammy Award. Without explicitly intending to, El Sistema effected a cultural revolution. Venezuela is heir to centuries of abuse and violence towards adults and children. Our people are accustomed to undervaluing themselves, aiming low, choosing easy paths of resignation, sabotaging their ambitions. This evil is embedded in schools, in social and institutional relationships, in the most trivial attitudes. José Antonio Abreu has developed the antidote to neutralize this negativity. Now all of Venezuela must realize that it has this antidote, and that it really works. May the prizes help us open our eyes.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland