José Antonio Abreu and El Sistema received the Polar Music Prize together with Peter Gabriel at the 18th Polar Music Prize Ceremony on August 31, 2009.
The former President of the United Nations General Assembly Jan Eliasson read the citation for Maestro Abreu and members of Lilla Akademin, The Junior Academy in Stockholm, performed, among others.
For the first time, the Laureates received a piece of art as their "diploma", made by Swedish artists Karin Mamma Andersson and Jochum Nordström.
José Antonio Abreu also held a lecture at Konserthuset Stockholm the day before the ceremony.
José Antonio Abreu and Jan Eliasson
The 2009 Polar Music Prize artistic and exclusive "diploma".
Children in pre-school painting while listening to classic music, an experiment done by the Polar Music Prize Foundation and McCann as a campaign for the Polar Music Prize 2009.
Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.
José Antonio Abreu
Born in 1939 in Valera, Venezuela, multi talented Maestro Abreu's career came to be within music, politics, activism and economics. He attended the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy in 1957, where he studied piano, organ, harpsichord and composition. In 1967, he received the Symphonic Music National Prize for his musical ability. In parallel with his musical studies, he earned a PhD degree in Petroleum Economics in 1961, and did directly after that some graduate work at the University of Michigan. He served as a Deputy at the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela and was Minister of Culture in 1983. After his political career, he also worked as a professor of economics and law at Universidad Simón Bolívar and his Alma Mater.
The Venezuela National Congress in Caracas (Source: Derek Rose, Wikimedia Commons)
In 1975 Maestro Abreu gathered eleven youngsters for a rehearsal in an underground car park, and told them that they were making history. At the next rehearsal, there were 25 musicians; the following day, 46; the day after, 75. In the heady days of the Venezuelan oil boom and at a time when there were just two symphony orchestras in Venezuela, both employing largely European musicians, he managed to win government funding for his scheme from the department of health, arguing that the well-being of children at risk was at stake. El Sistema, formally known as La Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestras Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela), was born.
Caracas Brass Band at El Sistema's premises in Caracas. (Source: By Agonzalez via Wikimedia Commons)
The principles of El Sistema are simple: Children as young as two are given an instrument as soon as they can hold it. Tuition, outings, music and, where necessary, social support are all furnished free of charge in return for the child’s agreement to play in one of El Sistema’s ensembles.
Group lessons are given special emphasis, although individual lessons are part of the training, too. Children who have mastered a scale or two are delegated to teach younger children. Peer support is fundamental. It is all the vision of one man who resolved to do something to change social conditions in his country. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras, and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country.
Pianist Gabriela Montero, part of one of the first Youth Orchestras, now famous worldwide. (Source: Photo by Colin Bell)
Gustavo Dudamel conducting. (Source: by VALE TV, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYOV) is an artistic consequence of El Sistema. The orchestra’s music director since 1999 is Gustavo Dudamel, once a pupil within El Sistema and now world famous conductor and musical director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and honorary music director for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Orchestral playing is part of the El Sistema programme from the beginning. Six days a week, four hours a day, the children play music together in one of 90 music schools, “núcleos,” around the country.
By 2011 the SBYOV was no longer officially a youth orchestra because the average age of the players had risen too high. It has therefore been replaced by its younger sibling, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra.
Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan military and political leader, “The Liberator” of several countries in South America during the 19th century. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Teresa Carreño, musician, pianist and composer from Venezuela, also the first woman conductor. Plaque on the 96th Street side of the apartment building “Della Robbia”, Manhattan. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
In memoriam José Antonio Abreu, "El Maestro", 1939–2018.
Content of biography is presented here as it was published in 2012.
Header and portrait photos by Baldur Bragason.
All photos from the lecture, ceremony and banquet by Karin Törnblom, © Polar Music Prize.