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Marin Alsop: A Utopian Musical Dream From South America

Dec 22, 2012
Originally published on December 26, 2012 10:40 am

Discovering Brazil has been a series of wonderful revelations for me. As principal conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra for the past year, I have been deeply moved and even changed by my exposure to this culture of passion and positivity.

Brazil's inherent societal belief that music improves quality of life, contributes to improved social behavior, and is an important vehicle to establish a peaceful society filled with tolerance and respect is a philosophy I once thought existed only in my utopian dreams.

This philosophy was first promoted by Dr. Jose Abreu, the man responsible for establishing the El Sistema movement of music education in Venezuela almost 40 years ago. The program, which launched the career of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, has reached more than 2 million Venezuelan children, transforming lives and creating a safe haven for many of these youngsters from lives of crime and poverty.

Recently, the Brazilian government declared music to be mandatory in elementary and secondary school, and officials are currently creating teacher training programs to serve all children.

At the same time, other countries with a history of music education are restudying the impact of that education on the lives of youngsters, revising their content and creating new approaches.

Inspired by El Sistema, other Latin American countries run programs offering music education and instrumental training to children in situations of social vulnerability. Some of them are supported by government policies and others by private money. All of them aim to develop musical group experiences in the belief that participating in musical groups, such as orchestras and choirs, will contribute to positive social behavior and develop an awareness of the civil role of each individual.

Here in the U.S., we are daunted by the enormous challenges facing American orchestras, but we must remember to look to South America to feel the warmth and optimism growing exponentially through classical music.

In Baltimore, we are not immune to the effects of the U.S. economic slowdown, but we have managed to embrace our southern neighbors' philosophical and practical approach through our ORCHKids program.

We started with 30 kids four years ago, and today nearly 600 kids from four schools are participating. My dream is to reach every child. They are amazing children — tomorrow's leaders — and they, along with my amazing new life in Brazil, give me hope that my utopian dream of a passionate and positive society may one day come true.

(Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the principal conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, which she led Sunday in a seaside concert for 20,000 people.)

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We're also looking back at the year through the eyes and ears of some of our regular contributors.

MARIN ALSOP: 2012 was a year that classical music in South America took a new place on the world stage.

SIMON: That's our friend Marin Alsop, who's music director of the Baltimore Symphony, also chief conductor of the Sao Paolo Symphony. She joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Marin, thanks so much for being with us.

ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thank you.

SIMON: What has made this such a big year for classical music in South America?

ALSOP: Well, it's not as though it just started this year. This is the - not even the arrival - it's just a moment and a long gestation period. Everyone, I think, has heard about the incredible program in Venezuela called El Sistema. And we know Gustavo Dudamel as a, you know, a product of this amazing program, which has been going for 40 years. And then in Brazil, there's a program, state-run program called Goree, which was started by Catholic nuns years ago. But these are programs that are not just about music. They're programs that are about society and changing the fabric of how young people interact. And therefore, they are changing the landscape of the future for all of these people.

SIMON: Now, you have a, not just a front-row seat, I mean, you're the director of the Sao Paolo Symphony. And you and the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra appeared this past summer at the Proms in London. This is the famous series of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. In fact, let's listen to a little of it.



ALSOP: Oh, it was so incredibly exciting, like a great football match almost.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What a way to finish their first-ever concert here in Britain, the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra playing...

ALSOP: We were the first Brazilian orchestra to ever appear at the Proms. The tickets sold out in 24 hours. So, there was incredible interest and support. And we had people in the audience with Brazilian flags. And I would say there are similarities between their passion for football and their passion for classical music these days. there's a philosophy in South America, in Brazil particularly, that classical music, by playing an instrument, by playing in an orchestra, this can influence the way young people look at themselves, look at the world around them. They believe that it promotes peace, it promotes tolerance, acceptance, respect. And classical musicians are absolutely revered.

SIMON: It's irresistible to point that this is occurring in Brazil and other places in Latin America at a time when there have been all kinds of cutbacks to music programs in a lot of elementary and secondary schools in the U.S.

ALSOP: Yes. This is what is so incredibly painful for me as a U.S. citizen to see how shortsighted we can be here. The governments in South America, and private funders as well - there are many government programs and many private programs - they understand the value of adding to quality of life, to offering alternatives for young people, to enabling everyone to experience life through art, and it really has changed lives dramatically.

SIMON: And you've kind of taken a cue with the program you have there in Baltimore.

ALSOP: In Baltimore, we're trying to do something along the same lines as El Sistema, but geared toward our own community. And five years ago we started a program called OrchKids - Orchestra Kids - with 30 kids from Baltimore public school system. And today, we have 600 young people. And these kids, you know, five years ago, they never dreamt the would play the violin or the trombone. And so they suddenly see the world opening up to them in terms of possibility. They can envision themselves doing things that they never could envision before. They learn motivation. They learn time management. They learn discipline. They learn how to work with each other. They have extended families through these ensembles and orchestras. They learn about mutual respect. And, most importantly, I think they learn that it's important to be part of a society, a larger society, and what their individual roles are.

SIMON: Any hopes for 2013, Marin?

ALSOP: Well, in our incredible country of abundance here in the United States, I hope that we can look at our priorities. I would love to see every child have access to a musical instrument and to be able to play in extended families of orchestras. You know, when a young person named Lennar Acosta was just a early teenager, he was given - in Venezuela - he was given a clarinet, and he said it felt very different from a gun. And it changed his life.

SIMON: Marin Alsop. Music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Sao Paolo Symphony. She's written an essay, by the way, on classical music in South America that appears on our website, Maestra, thanks very much. All the best for the new year.

ALSOP: Thank you, Scott. Happy New Year to everyone.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.