There was something compelling about investigating the work of El Sistema
on Martin Luther King Jr Day. The inspiring strains of “We Shall Overcome” was an interesting complement to the classical music I’d been listening to moments before, played by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra
The orchestra is a product of the venerable Venezuelan music program, its members coming from some of Caracas’ poorest neighbourhoods. Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu
created El Sistema in 1975 as a way of setting underprivileged kids on the right path, away from the violence and poverty that characterized their neighbourhoods, and onto a brighter future, one not necessarily tied to professional musicianship, but to experiencing a sense of community within the context of learning and enrichment on intellectual, social, and spiritual levels. “We shall overcome” became “we overcame” for many students involved with El Sistema.
Currently over 300,000 Venezuelan children are involved in the program. Publicly financed and run entirely by volunteers, the program watches over Venezuela’s 125 youth orchestras and formally runs thirty-one of them. The program has met with considerable success outside its native borders, a success explored in the new documentary Teaching The Life Of Music
, airing tonight at 9pm on Canada’s OMNI channel (it's re-broadcast on Spanish OMNI January 29th at 8pm). The work explores El Sistema’s effects within a (mainly) Canadian context, with Ottawa’s Leading Note Foundation
(which supports the city’s OrKidstra) and its students are featured prominently. Three budding musicians re portrayed in a journey -physical, creative, and spiritual -to see the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra perform live at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in 2009
. Maestro Abreu (who at the time of filming been awarded the Glenn Gould Prize
) is also interviewed, and Glee’s Corey Monteith provides narration
Writer-Producer Noemi Weis says El Sistema offers “a sense of community” to children who might otherwise be surrounded by negative influences, helping them become better people and citizens. The Buenos Aires-born Weis has a history of getting behind socially-relevant television and film work through her company, Film Blanc
. “Because I work on human rights films and social issues in general, I like to raise awareness ,” she says. Making films about groups like El Sistema are, for her, part of a solution; The Life Of Music provides initiative for parents and educators to become more involved in their communities and to place greater value on arts programming in schools.
“One of the missions of the film is to show that art is important in the life of a child.” Weis explains. “(Art) enriches the soul and gives kids all kinds of possibilities to develop themselves.”
Weis sought what she terms “an ambassador” to provide narration, someone who could easily identify with the film’s mission of music being a lifeline to underprivileged children. “Corey (Monteith) is perfect,” Weis says. “He didn't have a happy upbringing, and ...music really helped him through it all. When we saw a small clip I sent over, he felt compelled by the stories and wanted to be part of it.”
But just because she produced a movie called Teaching The Life of Music doesn’t mean she thinks El Sistema was created to inspire more young people to actually live a real life of (or for) music. “The intention is not to create more musicians -that’s not the goal,” she says. “I’m not a classical music fan myself. This (film) is inspired by music, (which) is just a tool to make a change and to save kids, to get them off the streets... but music is a byproduct of the whole thing.”
That might explain the absence of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel in the film, who is only glimpsed at signing autographs during the Orchestra’s visit, but is not interviewed or even mentioned. Currently Artistic Director of the SBYO, he is also the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Principal Conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony. It’s a surprising omission, considering the Venezuelan Dudamel, with his wavey dark hair and dynamic live conducting style
, is perhaps El Sistema’s best-known and most widely admired ambassador
“The movie is about the impact of El Sistema outside of Venezuela,” Weis states firmly. ”In creating this project, what I wanted to do was capitalize on the thirty-six years of (the program) doing this wonderful work and how a third world country like Venezuela can impact a first world country like ours. Dudamel is part of (the film), but not the purpose.”
The actual purpose, she says, is to spread the word about the program and its life-changing (some would argue life-saving) effects. She and her Film Blanc cohorts hope that through various domestic and international screenings, new relationships between El Sistema groups can be fostered and cultivated. And there’s another effect Weis hopes Teaching The Life Of Music will have.
“We hope the government will take notice of it. It's mistaken to think art should be the first thing to go when there are budget cuts. Art should not be an addition.”