The story of “El Sistema, an extraordinary program for children and youth in Venezuela, where music education and social reform have been fused on a national scale with astonishing results.”
Music educator Tunstall (Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson, 2008) traveled to South America, California and elsewhere to explore the El Sistema's global groundswell. Founded in 1975 by pianist José Antonio Abreu, the movement, which currently serves nearly 300,000 underprivileged children throughout Venezuela alone, seeks to develop civic engagement and social responsibility by engaging youth with the rigors of the musical discipline and the interpersonal dynamics of playing in an instrumental ensemble. El Sistema has been profoundly successful, earning massive government support in Venezuela and spawning dozens of offshoots throughout the world, including the United States. Having produced arguably the most celebrated conductor today, 30-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, the program has become the most symbolic example of the social relevance that classical music can have in today's cultural landscape. Tunstall soundly probes how it is that classical music has played such a powerful role in the protection, education and elevation of so many children born into poverty. The author does a noble job tracing the history of El Sistema, while managing to keep the narrative as much in the immediate present as possible. Occasionally, Tunstall's otherwise enjoyable and sincere narrative becomes infected with the hyperbole endemic to classical music culture. Transformation, intellectual awe and spiritual uplift are notions that have always coded classical music with elitism while masking its deep anxiety over its own relevancy. Yet the author does readers a service by drawing attention to the group energy, individual artistry and organizational power that the social structures of classical music require.
Tunstall is at times flatly earnest, even sappy, but never at the expense of conveying what is truly inspiring about her subject.