The El Sistema World Conference, September 2021
Patricia Abdelnour, Executive Director, El Sistema Luxembourg; Head of Cultural Programming, Mir wëllen iech Ons Heemecht weisen
At the risk of overstating the obvious…what a difficult year (and more) this has continued to be! We continue to work, network, present, direct, participate, socialize, celebrate, and sometimes date online. This is the new space we all inhabit nowadays. It takes its toll.
In Luxembourg, where I live, the government-created quarantine support helplines crash every time there is a new lockdown, illustrating that this new dynamic of socializing or working or studying online is no substitute for the real thing. And since no travel time is needed between professional meetings, webinars and conferences are now booked back-to-back. We are becoming a planet filled with people who are not only depressed but also exhausted.
It is in this context that around the end of August, the global Sistema community started hearing about an upcoming “World El Sistema Congress.” I am not alone when I say that my first reaction was panic: another intense, energy-sucking online event. Auxilio!!
But I was happily surprised by the fresh air and vibrant energy the Caracas conference organizers were able to summon—even online. For three days, we were virtually sitting at the same table with our peers on faraway continents, listening to each other despite extreme time differences, learning, laughing, and growing. It was an instance when virtual technology allowed us to do something we had never actually done before.
As moderator for a few sessions and attendee at many others, I was struck by how the diversity of the program offered something for everyone. In over 50 separate sessions, presenters from 20 countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia explored themes such as internal organization, structure and development of rehearsals and concerts, curriculum and pedagogy, child safeguarding policies, fundraising, and partnerships. It was of great value for participants to listen to so many different perspectives and approaches to similar challenges, from cultures all over the globe.
I especially liked traveling between themes, from composing to management to social impact to repertoire, and between visions and cultural contexts, from Japan to Puerto Rico, from Cyprus to Brazil. I was starstruck to hear composer Carlos Medrano (“Merengue for the First Finger”) talk about composing for children’s orchestras, and I was moved by listening to pianist Albert Sanz describe his learning experience with Spanish gypsy musicians. For me, a musician in management, it was inspiring to hear my colleagues across the world share tips on how to align our projects with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals or illustrate the spectacular firecracker-like explosions that go on in our brains during the process of collective music-making, as explained by Professor Javier Romero Naranjo.
In creating this conference, our comrades in Venezuela were able to do what they are famously good at doing: taking the normal—even this new normal—to a new level of ambition.
A brief postscript. Three weeks later, they did this in a different context: El Sistema Venezuela broke the Guinness World Record for the largest orchestra in the world, with nearly 9,000 Sistema musicians playing Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave.” In a country where everyday life has become precarious, it’s extraordinary that so many children and young people and their families accomplished this exciting goal together; it took them all to a place of happiness and pride. Said Eduardo Mendez, Executive Director of the Simon Bolívar Music Foundation, “El Sistema wants to raise its voice with music and joy. With great effort and discipline, the Venezuelan kids have taken over the streets of Caracas to form, together, the world’s biggest orchestra ever!” And Gustavo Dudamel commended the young people “for their dedication, for their conviction, and for their love of what they do.”
To learn more about Mir wëllen iech Ons Heemecht weisen, visit their website.