Jose Antonio Abreu, Founder Of El Sistema Youth Orchestra, Dies At 78 Jose Abreu, founder of El Sistema Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, died Saturday at 78. Alvaro Rodas, director of the Corona Youth Music Project, wrote his grad school thesis on Abreu and remembers him.
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Jose Antonio Abreu, Founder Of El Sistema Youth Orchestra, Dies At 78

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Jose Antonio Abreu, Founder Of El Sistema Youth Orchestra, Dies At 78

Jose Antonio Abreu, Founder Of El Sistema Youth Orchestra, Dies At 78

Jose Antonio Abreu, Founder Of El Sistema Youth Orchestra, Dies At 78

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/597100814/597100821" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Jose Abreu, founder of El Sistema Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, died Saturday at 78. Alvaro Rodas, director of the Corona Youth Music Project, wrote his grad school thesis on Abreu and remembers him.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A great maestro has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF VENEZUELA PERFORMANCE OF EVENCIO CASTELLANOS' "SANTA CRUZ DE PACAIRIGUA")

SHAPIRO: Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of Venezuela's El Sistema Youth Orchestra.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's the orchestra playing Evencio Castellanos' "Santa Cruz De Pacairigua." Abreu founded El Sistema over 40 years ago with fewer than a dozen musicians. Speaking at UC Berkeley in 2012, he remembered it as a disappointing start.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE ANTONIO ABREU: (Through interpreter) The night of the first rehearsal, I promised those present that I would stick with them to the very end and that I would turn that orchestra into a world-class orchestra.

CHANG: So they put out a call to other cities in the region.

SHAPIRO: By the second rehearsal, they had 40 students - by the third, nearly double that number.

CHANG: Within three months, they were ready to premiere the orchestra. Now there are El Sistema Youth Orchestras and choirs in all 24 provinces of Venezuela. The program has grown to include 300 choirs and orchestras. And their method has been copied globally from Scotland to Guatemala to Ohio and New York.

ALVARO RODAS: My name is Alvaro Rodas. I am originally from Guatemala City. And I live in New York City right now. I started the Corona Youth Music Project, which is an El Sistema-inspired program.

SHAPIRO: Alvaro Rodas got involved with El Sistema in 1996 when students came to his home country of Guatemala to launch the program there. Rodas was so inspired that he later wrote his master's thesis on Jose Abreu.

RODAS: For the past 20 years, my whole career has been inspired and driven by his work and his ideas.

SHAPIRO: Rodas thinks the key to El Sistema's success was simple. It was Abreu.

RODAS: He was a great musician, put it simply. He was a very clever politician with a very good preparation in economics and a lot of experience in the politics of the Venezuelan government. And he truly believed in the capacity of children to accomplish amazing things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF VENEZUELA PERFORMANCE OF ARTURO MARQUEZ'S "CONGA DEL FUEGO")

CHANG: In 2009, Rodas was one of the inaugural class of El Sistema fellows, a program established by Abreu to help teach musicians how to start programs like his in their own communities. That was when Rodas met the maestro.

RODAS: He was a very spiritual person. You know, you build a community around music. You bring about ideas of progress and dreaming beyond your imagination. And that to him was the power of music. And the way he spoke about it, he was very, very calm, very engaging, soft-spoken.

CHANG: Over 500,000 Venezuelan children are part of El Sistema and another 10,000 in the U.S. alone.

SHAPIRO: There are programs in over 60 other countries. But Rodas says that the maestro's legacy is far from fixed.

RODAS: This is not even halfway where he wanted to be and where it needs to be. So we have to keep the work up. It's a reminder to get to work and to continue with this fight, as he put it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RODAS: We shouldn't expect another Jose Antonio Abreu to substitute him. But we should all take it on as our personal goal to go out and teach even if we're not teachers by profession. Teaching music or anything, it's the way to move forward as a society. We are the ones who have to continue doing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF VENEZUELA PERFORMANCE OF EVENCIO CASTELLANOS' "SANTA CRUZ DE PACAIRIGUA")

CHANG: That was Alvaro Rodas remembering the maestro Jose Antonio Abreu. Abreu died Saturday at the age of 78. He was the founder of the world-renowned El Sistema music education program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMON BOLIVAR YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF VENEZUELA PERFORMANCE OF EVENCIO CASTELLANOS' "SANTA CRUZ DE PACAIRIGUA")

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