Exploring the shallows: Nicholas Kenyon on “El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth”

[25/09/2015] Nicholas Kenyon is a major international figure in the arts world. Currently the director of the Barbican Centre, he was previously director of the Proms, and was at the helm in 2007 when the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) made its famous debut. He is also a prolific writer and serious intellectual. His edited volume Authenticity and Early Music (1987) was the first work of musicology that I read, and it helped to start me on the path towards becoming a professional researcher of music.

However, I would be lying if I said that I was looking forward to his review of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth in the New York Review of Books. He hinted to me himself that he had written a stinker. But I was uneasy more because every work of scholarship has its flaws, and after a string of inconsequential reviews in the media, I thought that someone of Kenyon’s stature might have found genuine weaknesses.

I needn’t have worried. Of course, the review will have an impact: it will serve to delegitimize my book and boost the reputation of El Sistema. But as with previous efforts, its substance does not stand up to scrutiny, which is what really concerns me.

Everything stems from Kenyon’s position as a top-level advocate for classical music, and particularly orchestral music. For me, he claims, “being a player in an orchestra is simply being told what to do by someone else, and that is unacceptable.” It’s unacceptable, however, because he’s the director of a major orchestral venue, not because it’s patently false. To my interviewees in Venezuela, it was a truism, and such opinions are hardly confined to that country. In his ethnography of professional orchestral musicians in London (Kenyon’s own patch), Stephen Cottrell quotes one who claims: “You basically subjugate your whole person, all your ideas, your own personal ideas, you have to just completely throw them away. Just say, right, I don’t matter. The guy on the box, on the podium, he’s the guy that matters.” Another states: “It’s a little bit like being in a communist state really, being in an orchestra, in that you’ve got this Chairman Mao in front of you.” That does not close the argument, of course, but to find such statements “unacceptable” requires considerable deafness to the voices of both musicians and scholars – a point to which I will return.

“For this argument, Baker draws on such dubious sources as Blair Tindall’s trashy memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2005) in order to criticize the pervading structures of orchestral life.” This is a disappointingly manipulative sentence coming from an intellectual heavyweight. My brief references to Tindall’s book come in the middle of hundreds of scholarly citations, and are used only to add colour to serious points made repeatedly by musicologists, sociologists, and even arts leaders. Much more central to my argument is Spitzer and Zaslaw’s scholarly doorstopper, The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650–1815, or “Why They’re Not Smiling: Stress and Discontent in the Orchestra Workplace” (a study co-written by a psychologist and an eminent orchestral musician), or the work of organizations expert Richard Hackman. But Kenyon ignores all such academic sources, chooses the only anecdotal one, implies that it is typical rather than exceptional, and thus substitutes caricature for critical engagement. The measure of a serious review is its willingness to get to the heart of the argument, not to focus on the frills. It should strive to illuminate, not to deceive.

“The essentially collaborative nature of so much orchestral music-making is something he fails, or does not wish, to recognize,” writes Kenyon. Yet Abreu, El Sistema’s founder, believes that an orchestra should function like a Swiss watch. Would one say that the cogs in a machine “collaborate” with each other? It is Kenyon who does not wish to recognize the numerous scholarly challenges to his rose-tinted view of orchestral music making, which I discuss throughout the book. This, unfortunately, is Kenyon’s method: to ignore both my arguments and the extensive academic literature in which they are situated, and recycle a platitude instead.

“Only through musical agreement are the best performances realized—as anyone will testify who has witnessed musical performances where there is lack of agreement.” It is here that Kenyon’s argument really falls down. He sings the praises of the SBYO’s performances, yet this is a rigidly authoritarian ensemble, nicknamed by musicians as the Venezuelan Slave Orchestra. Furthermore, exhaustive scholarly research by Hackman found a correlation between performance quality and authoritarian leadership in the orchestral world. Both the research and Kenyon’s own ears, then, point to the opposite of his conclusion: when it comes to orchestras, the sound of autocracy is thrilling.

This is not the only example of a breakdown of logic in Kenyon’s arguments. He starts quite promisingly with regard to El Sistema’s history: “it is clear that it was not in its beginnings the wide-ranging social and educational project it eventually became, but was strongly focused on orchestral training.” But then further down, we read:

“When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, Abreu won his backing by emphasizing that El Sistema was a social project that should appeal to Chávez’s socialist regime. All this is presented by Baker as if it had a whiff of corruption about it: it was, however, entirely consonant with Abreu’s efforts to sustain the basic vision of El Sistema.”

Firstly, Kenyon has just acknowledged that the basic vision of El Sistema was orchestral training, not social work, and secondly, I do not suggest that this rebranding was corrupt, but rather strategic – a significant difference. If Abreu was willing to say whatever Chávez wanted to hear in order to maintain the state’s support for large-scale orchestral training, then his approach was undeniably strategic, which leads us to the really significant question that Kenyon skips over: if this musical project was rebranded as a social project half way through its history in order to speak a language that politicians understood, how seriously should its claims of social action be taken? Should it really be taken as a model for socially oriented music education around the world?

Kenyon’s enthusiasm for the SBYO, and particularly its famous 2007 Proms performance (which, as director, he oversaw), is unalloyed, at least at first: “This was clearly a different sort of ensemble that seemed to represent a youthful ideal of how the orchestra could be reinvented.” This, of course, is where my book started; I thought the very same thing. Over the next 360 pages, I explore how I discovered that I was wrong, but Kenyon has little interest in what I actually found in Venezuela. A good example of our error was provided when the Simón Bolívar orchestra came to London in early 2015. Richard Morrison, writing in the Times, noted that the concerts – focused on works by Beethoven, Mahler, and Wagner – were little different to what one might hear any night of the week from one of London’s five orchestras. He concluded: “That the most enjoyable item — Julián Orbón’s fizzy, cross-rhythmed Tres versiones sinfónicas — was also the only Latin American music on the programme seemed symptomatic of an existential crisis. The Bolívars shook the world by being irresistibly youthful, iconoclastic and Venezuelan. In the process of ‘growing up’ they have become just like everyone else. And they don’t seem to be having fun any more.” In other words, what had seemed true in 2007 – to me as well as to Kenyon – looked rather less so eight years later.

This is actually something Kenyon realizes, and even admits:

“The Bolívar’s increasing espousal of the large-scale Central European repertory to the exclusion of its native music, and its recent adoption of white-tie-and-tails convention for touring performances of Wagner and Tchaikovsky in Europe’s leading concert halls, both suggest a conventionality that is not the spirit in which El Sistema was conceived.”

He is careful, however, to keep this material far away from the sentence about youthful ideal and reinvention and his glowing descriptions of the SBYO at the Proms, allowing the rosy view plenty of time to take root in the reader’s mind. Also, not for the first time, Kenyon does not seem to have followed the logic of his own position. After all, he knows that El Sistema began as an orchestral training program, and if he had done further research, he might have discovered that Abreu’s original aim was to put Venezuela on the international orchestral map as being on a par with other countries, and his focus was on European masterworks from the start. So in fact Wagner and Tchaikovsky in white tie and tails in Europe’s leading concert halls chimes precisely with the spirit in which El Sistema was conceived. Its first concert consisted of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Vivaldi; the populist mambo show that Kenyon and I saw in 2007 was a much more recent development.

At times, he fails to follow his own logic; at other times he fails to follow mine. He states firmly: “Baker is unclear whether it is the music itself, the institutions that promote it, or only the way it is learned that he finds questionable.” Kenyon, it seems, reversed the normal procedure of a reviewer in a hurry, and rather than reading only the introduction, he skipped it altogether. Had he got as far as p.12, he would have read: “The object of my critique […] is not classical music per se but rather the institutions, pedagogies, and practices that mediate it.” Even the most jaundiced reviewer could hardly claim this was “unclear.” He also states that I do not acknowledge El Sistema’s achievements until p.308. This is factually incorrect, since in the introduction he would have found the following (and more):

“El Sistema has numerous positive aspects. It has brought cultural activity to many children; its scale and intensity are impressive; and youths from humble circumstances have been given extraordinary opportunities. Dedicated music teachers are at work in all four corners of Venezuela. Thousands of children are enjoying making music under their direction, in many cases benefiting from the personal attention of an adult, from sociability with their peers, and from the cognitive benefits of childhood musical learning.”

Reading Kenyon’s review is less like being grilled than like being talked over loudly by someone who listens to barely a word you say. “Increasingly, over recent decades, priorities other than rigorous faithfulness to a written score have emerged in young people’s music-making: creation, improvisation, the use of nonclassical sources, and the breaking down of barriers between classical music and other genres are all reflected in the increasingly mixed backgrounds and disciplines from which these musicians emerge.” Absolutely, and this is a theme that runs throughout my book – indeed, it is the lack of such changes in El Sistema that is one of the principal problems that I identify, and I make repeated suggestions about the inclusion of composition and improvisation. How strange it is then to read Kenyon say of me: “If he were to develop ideas about orchestral practice suggesting the need for players to be involved in composition and improvisation as well as teaching and performing, that could be a fruitful reflection on El Sistema’s methods.” Either I simply fail to follow his logic, or he did not read my book properly.

He rushes from my description of a visit to a núcleo in Caracas to the false conclusion that my “actual experience of the work of El Sistema in Caracas seems to have been limited to a single day of its activities.” In a subtler attempt to downplay my first-hand knowledge, he says that I “visited” Venezuela (not the word one would usually use for a year of fieldwork). Such distortions will probably pass unnoticed by those who already know my work, but they will help to dissuade readers of the NYRB who do not.

Kenyon recounts that the pianist Alfred Brendel “witnessed a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony by the nine-to-thirteen-year-old musicians of the National Venezuelan Children’s Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle. He described it as ‘one of the most affecting performances I have witnessed in Salzburg in half a century…from my sceptical corner, I look at the Venezuelan miracle with amazement…. Has the power of music ever generated such comprehensive social benefit?’” Kenyon leaves Brendel’s pregnant remark hanging in the air and moves on, giving his readers no clue that one of the key ideas of my book is that no one – not even the world’s greatest pianist – can assess the social benefits of music making simply by going to a concert. Musical celebrities do not have superhuman powers of insight into complex social questions, especially in distant parts of the world that they do not know. As I wrote, precisely in reference to this tendency to enroll the fleeting impressions of illustrious musicians as evidence of social efficacy: “A roll call of people who believe El Sistema to be a force for good is no more evidence for that conclusion than a list of fervent believers is evidence for the existence of God.”

There are other aspects of the review that disturb me more, however, because they point to a problematic moral stance rather than just faulty logic and strategic omissions. Take, for example, the following:

“Baker uses these developments to imply that Abreu is ruthless. In 1999, Abreu replaced one of his longest-serving colleagues, Gustavo Medina, as conductor of the National Children’s Orchestra, a move that was much criticized, leading to public criticism from Medina. But the replacement was the charismatic and hugely talented Gustavo Dudamel, one of the most successful products of El Sistema, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a leading advocate of music education for all. It is difficult to argue that Abreu chose wrongly.”

Kenyon does not counter the suggestion that Abreu is ruthless, then, but rather argues that his ruthlessness was justified by Dudamel’s talent. The idea that Abreu was right to dismiss one of his longest-serving colleagues because he happened to have a good replacement waiting in the wings represents a strangely amoral position on Kenyon’s part. Like Abreu, whom he admires so much, Kenyon appears to believe that the ends justify the means. Yet is ruthless leadership really the route to social change? What happened to those values – teamwork, fraternity, justice – that El Sistema supposedly fosters?

Since Kenyon has little first-hand knowledge of El Sistema, he relies on others to construct his case, and his choice of sources is revealing: he depends solely on high-level, non-Venezuelan Sistema advocates (such as Marshall Marcus, Tricia Tunstall, and Maria Majno), and treats them as though they were impartial and reliable sources. He questions my scholarly credentials yet says not a word about those of his key witnesses, who are in fact dedicated Sistema boosters and journalists rather than academics. Marcus is the former head of classical music at the Southbank Centre, a Kenyon-esque cultural manager and El Sistema’s most high-profile ambassador in Europe. Tunstall, meanwhile, described her own bibliography-free book as “reportage, not scholarship.” She said publicly that she wanted not just “to tell a compelling tale” of El Sistema but also “to proselytize on behalf of its mission.” Should a serious intellectual like Kenyon really rest his case solely on such figures? Why does he give so much credit to their overtly biased opinions, and so little to peer-reviewed academic research? Indeed, one looks in vain in this review for any sign of scholarship on music other than my book – a strange approach from a reviewer who is himself a scholar of music. Does his dependence on “reportage” and PR suggest that there is no research that would support his position?

What are also notably lacking from Kenyon’s review are the voices of ordinary Venezuelan musicians, rather than prominent (and mainly foreign) figures. Kenyon criticizes me for not speaking to Abreu, but I would criticize Kenyon in return for listening only to the loudest and most powerful voices, the ones audible in London – perhaps hardly a surprising approach on the part of the director of the Barbican, but one that I deliberately chose not to take. In any case, does Kenyon honestly think that Abreu, the consummate politician, would have revealed anything significant to me? The German journalist Marco Frei asked Abreu about problems in El Sistema, but the director looked irritated:

“‘Problems?’ he asked with a questioning glance through thick glasses. ‘We grow, grow, grow.’ I wonder if he is satisfied with the government support. ‘It is huge, stronger than ever.’ Then Abreu leans back, with a satisfied smile.”

Similarly, the New York Times journalist Daniel Wakin brought up the subject of violence and crime with Abreu:

“He was unperturbed when it was pointed out that Venezuela has become one of the most violent societies in the world. Violence is a global problem, he said: ‘Orchestras and choirs are incredibly effective instruments against violence.’”

Such complacent, unsupported soundbites would hardly have shed light on my research, and Abreu has never offered anything more revealing in a published interview.

Given Kenyon’s high-level approach, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has little understanding of ethnography, a research method that seeks to represent and analyze the viewpoints of those at the coalface. All but one of my interviewees made anonymity a condition of speaking to me. Rather than thinking about why this might have been the case – in other words, about power – Kenyon moves straight into an accusation of “dubious scholarly method.” In reality, as anyone acquainted with scholarship in social sciences and education could have told him, anonymizing sources is a standard procedure, one that it would be both unprofessional and unethical to ignore in a case such as this, in which interviewees were concerned about the possible consequences of exposure. Kenyon also criticizes the anonymization of my research locations, another standard procedure. The alternative would have been to name the locations and therefore make a number of people potentially identifiable against their will – again, grossly unprofessional and unethical. Charges that my book employs dubious methods and is “deeply unconvincing” are contradicted by a raft of positive reviews and endorsements from experts in music education and sociology – professionals who understand and employ research methods in this field.

Kenyon finishes with a spirited defence of El Sistema as “unlocking musical creativity in young people,” ignoring not only swathes of the book but also a wealth of scholarly literature that challenge this linking of conventional large-ensemble performance and creativity. This is an issue that some graduates of Abreu’s North American training school, the Sistema Fellows program at NEC, have begun to acknowledge and address, as they seek to incorporate activities such as collaborative composition and improvisation into their educational programs. They are doing so because there is a lack of space for creativity in the original model.

In sum, I’m sure my book has flaws, but Kenyon has singularly failed to find them. Rather than dissecting my book, he has distorted it. That a pillar of the classical music establishment should leap to the defense of one of classical music’s sacred cows is unsurprising. As the director of the Proms in 2007, he is predictably protective of an orchestra that provided a highlight of that year’s festival, and indeed of his tenure. I would hardly expect him to accept that there was a dark side to one of his triumphs. His defense of a fellow cultural leader – rather than, say, El Sistema’s workforce, subject to exploitation and impoverishment – is similarly foreseeable. More surprising is that such an important intellectual figure should fail to engage critically with most of the book’s key arguments and resort instead to extreme selectivity and even caricature. Furthermore, Kenyon’s lofty London vantage point renders much of the detail in distant Venezuela invisible to him; he therefore falls back on commonplaces and idealizations that offer little to those interested in understanding El Sistema more deeply. “Is it about the real Sistema or the fantasy?” asked one of the program’s top musicians recently about my book. It is about the real Sistema; Kenyon’s review, however, with its Hollywood-esque title (“The Triumph of a Musical Adventure”), sticks firmly to the fantasy version purveyed by the media.

Much as I’d love to have the public approval of such a powerful figure, it is the support I have received from Venezuelan musicians that means most to me. Kenyon, like many in the higher reaches of the arts world, appears uninterested in hearing their voices, even when those voices lie in front of him on the page. He prefers to extol classical music by romanticizing it and glossing over its problems – which ultimately does the music a disservice, by implying that an honest, clear-eyed defense is not possible. Kenyon’s approach is all very well for advocacy, but not for musical research.