Back in May 2010 each Abreu Fellow interned at an El Sistema-inspired program somewhere outside of Venezuela. The idea was to experience how a program took its understanding of El Sistema concepts and applied them to their own community. The fellows interned at programs in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Scotland and myself in Baltimore with the OrchKids program.

I arrived on the scene on May 16th, the night 60 Minutes aired their segment on Gustavo Dudamel, the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids program. I watched the segment with Dan Trahey, program director and Eli Worth, program conductor. Dan was pacing beforehand but I think he was quite thrilled with the outcome. I  also thought it was a good segment. But since they were focusing on the spread of El Sistema in the USA I just wished they would had mentioned El Sistema USA or the Abreu Fellows. They did have a short clip of Mark Churchill (El Sistema USA/Abreu Fellows Program Director) speaking but only referred to him as “the head of El Sistema in the USA.”  It’s a curious omission but I can understand this somewhat after spending the year trying to explain the complex links between Jose Antonio Abreu and the Abreu Fellows Program. It’s not easy.

Just to recap (or explain, for newcomers), the short, incomplete version goes something like this:

  • Jose Antonio Abreu launches El Sistema in Caracas, Venezuela in 1975 with 11 kids in a parking garage.
  • In the 1990s El Sistema forms a National Children’s Orchestra, of which Gustavo Dudamel is a part as a violinist and conductor. They eventually take on the name of Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra “B”.
  • Gustavo Dudamel wins the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004. Everyone asks “Who is this kid and where does he come from?” The answer is, of course, he is a product of El Sistema (El who?).
  • Somewhere during this time, Mark Churchill, Dean of the Prep School and of Continuing Education at the New England Conservatory, takes note of this national youth orchestra program in Venezula. This is the beginning of a long relationship between Churchill and NEC and Jose Antonio Abreu and El Sistema.
  • Dudamel’s victory in the Mahler competition leads to instant curiousity and eventually recognition of El Sistema, their Simon Bolivar Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel. Who knew there were 350,000 kids playing in neighbourhood youth orchestras everyday after school all over a country better known for its oil, its president and its Miss Universes.
  • Cue concerts with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra B and Dudamel all over the world, including the London Proms, La Scala, Carnegie Hall and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Plus hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
  • Dudamel is named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
  • Jose Antonio Abreu is garnering prizes all over the world, including in the United States, the TED Prize, which is worth $100,000 and “one wish.” His wish: to create the Abreu Fellows Program in order to train musicians to start El Sistema in the United States and beyond.
  • Given its relationship with El Sistema in Venezuela, the New England Conservatory hosts the Abreu Fellows Program. El Sistema USA, a networking and resource organization, is formed to spearhead the Abreu Fellows Program and connect other American (and other) El Sistema programs to each other. Mark Churchill is director of both the Abreu Fellows Program and El Sistema USA.
  • The Abreu Fellows study El Sistema all year (2009-2010), including trips to Venezuela and various US-based El Sistema-like programs.

Simple no? If you have questions or want to add or correct anything, please feel free to add your comment below the end of the blog.

Back to Baltimore. I believe the Baltimore Symphony OrchKids program has the right idea with its educational and community pursuits because just like El Sistema, they’re using music to uplift youths and communities. An orchestra’s weapon of contribution is music, and by bringing it to the community, especially underserved communities, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is winning the hearts of many, many people (including 60 Minutes), some of whom have never been anywhere near a symphony orchestra. I say it’s a “weapon” because music, in this instance, is consciously being used as a tool to combat povery of spirit, lack of motivation and an abundance of free time. And when I say “bringing music to the community” I mean, putting instruments in the youths’ hands…several times a week…all year long…all over the city.

The OrchKids Program wants all 82,000 Baltimore City Public School students to eventually be part of their program. It’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s the right direction to go in. I saw their 10-year plan. If they’re able to stick to it, tickets to the Baltimore Symphony will be hard to come by in 10-15 years. To be sure, it’s certainly an investment, but in due time, those kids (and their parents, friends and families) will have a life-long appreciation of the Baltimore Symphony. This kind of hands-on, sustained investment in youths and communities ought to be part of any good philanthropic plan if symphony orchestras are going to continue to be relevant in their own cities.

For more program details and behind the scenes footage on the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids Program please see my blogs from November 2009 here and here.

I arrived at the OrchKids Program as they were preparing their end of the year concert. The idea was to turn the Lockerman Bundy Elementary School gym into a lavish concert hall. Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop was to come conduct AND play violin as part of the concert (that’s her in the picture on the left at the dress rehearsal). Certainly the program could have rented a nice hall, but I thought it was a strong statement by the BSO to bring the music to the school, which is in West Baltimore.

Along with some other volunteers and interns, I was tasked with helping out with the concert production, striking the stage, teaching some classes and acting as a stage hand during the concert.

Here’s how we decorated the gym. First off, we needed to cover the hideous, beige, concrete-blocked walls with something more fancy. So we went to Wal-Mart and bought loads of black material to cover the walls. We used velcro tape to hang it. We ran white Christmas lights along the edge of the material. An actual three-foot stage was brought in for the ensembles to play on top of. We covered portable chalk boards with black construction paper to create the stage wings. We bought small floodlamps and fitted them strategically around the gym to create mood lighting. We needed lights aimed at the stage so using a ladder and some zip ties we fixed some floodlights to the basketball nets and pointed them toward the stage. We decorated the edge of the stage and the music stands with music notes cut out of construction paper. 300+ chairs were brought in for the audience, which included the familes, teachers and donors. Add the American flag, the State of Maryland flag and a podium for speeches. We turned off the gym lights, turned on the floodlights, turned on the air conditioning (which never ended up working) and VOILA, the gym was turned into a “concert hall”. The picture of the dress rehearsal below and to the right shows our work.

Flyers were made to announce the concert which was given the name:

“A Night With The Future: A Community Affair”.

The concert involved about 150 OrchKids. There were several choir pieces, including Beyonce’s “Halo”, a bucket band number led by Baltimore Symphony percussionist Brian Pretchl, a piece for piano and orchestra featuring Peabody Conservatory Marian Hahm on piano, a woodwind ensemble, a Stevie Wonder piece, a blues where every kid on stage took a solo and Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop conducted the OrchKids orchestra in Amazing Grace. Marin also played violin in one of the pieces. The OrchKids teachers played with the kids on stage when needed but they made a point of staying out of the way and keeping the focus on the students. The kids performed admirably. The oldest are only in third grade and if they keep going at this rate they’re going to be virtuosos.

The concert was followed by a reception in the school cafeteria where donors mingled with parents and kids with teachers. It truly was a community affair with the focus on “the future.”

The OrchKids program embodies many of the concepts and philosophies I saw in Venezuela, indeed their program leadership (Dan Trahey and Nick Skinner) spent some time in Acarigua, before the Abreu Fellows Program even existed, so they certainly know what they’re doing. By keeping the focus on the music, the kids and the community I’m certain the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will become an even bigger part of the city.

Please stay tuned for my next blog which will come out before the end of this week. It will include writings on our graduation, the new class of Abreu Fellows and my and the fellows’ plans for next year.