José Abreu, the founder of Venezuela’s world-renowned El Sistema program, has died aged 78. Tributes have been pouring out for the musician, who pursued social change and youth empowerment through ensemble music education, bringing music and hope to under-privileged children.
“With devoted love and eternal gratitude to my mentor and father of El Sistema,” Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director and El Sistema’s highest profile alumna wrote on Twitter, along with a photograph of the maestro with Abreu. Dudamel, who has been unable to return to Venezuela after speaking out against President Nicolás Maduro’s government, has just been granted Spanish citizenship.
José Antonio Abreu, who was born on May 7, 1939, in Valera in Venezuela and studied music as well as economics, rose to international fame as a result of the success of Venezuela’s National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs, “El Sistema”, which he founded in 1975. The program, which Abreu started in a garage with nine musicians, has spread across South America and the world, bringing music education to children living in impoverished and challenging circumstances and now boasting a network of 300 choirs and orchestras including the flagship Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar.
Abreu received numerous awards for his work, including the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon in Japan and the Glenn Gould Prize in Canada and the Polar Music Prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music as well as honorary memberships at the Royal Philharmonic Society in the UK and the Beethoven-Haus Society in Germany and an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Education, University of London.
Abreu’s life has not been without controversy, due to his close ties to President Maduro and an Associated Press investigation in 2017, which found that El Sistema had for over a decade erroneously listed in Abreu’s biography a doctorate in petroleum economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
“We are deeply moved by the physical departure of maestro Abreu,” President Maduro said, announcing his death on state television.
“We join in mourning the loss of a musical visionary and Gustavo Dudamel’s beloved mentor, El Sistema founder Maestro José Antonio Abreu,” wrote the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Twitter, while mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung tweeted “What an extraordinary man.”
A memorial service was held at a chapel in the Sala Simón Bolívar of the National Center for Social Action for Music in Caracas, attended by Maduro, who presented Abreu’s family with the national flag and a replica of the Sword of the Liberator Simón Bolívar.