Stop press! A story about the real Sistema in The Times

[10/01/2016]The Bolívars are back in town and it’s time to dust off the old clichés, quotes, snippets from Wikipedia and so on, and paraphrase the latest Fundamusical press release. But what’s this? Richard Morrison, the veteran classical music critic of The Times and one of the most recognized names in the field, has bucked the trend, done some research, and asked a few pointed questions of Gustavo Dudamel.

The article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall and therefore available only to subscribers. Apparently, though, it was a double-page spread in the print edition on Thursday. So for the benefit of others, here’s a summary of the interesting parts.

Morrison asked Dudamel about the points made in my book. The latter’s entire response was:

Mr Baker’s book has been commented on by many — Nicholas Kenyon’s piece in The New York Review of Books this past September addresses it best.

It’s rather interesting that Dudamel, rather than giving his own opinion of the program in which he grew up, appealed to the authority of someone whose NYRB article revealed little understanding and even less first-hand knowledge of El Sistema.

Furthermore, as Morrison noted:

Kenyon, now the managing director of the Barbican Centre in London, was the BBC Proms director who first invited Dudamel and the Bolívar Orchestra to perform in London, so he isn’t a totally objective judge.

He went on:

Many other reviewers have pointed out the weakness of a critique that relies so heavily for evidence on people who (for whatever reason) refuse to be named.

(Though none of the reviewers, he might have added, with expertise in the fields of music education, ethnomusicology, or sociology, who recognize anonymization as standard practice and have actually pointed out the strength of the critique.)*

Still, he contested that viewpoint in a different and more surprising way:

Yet last month a distinguished former Sistema student did speak on the record, claiming to corroborate many of Baker’s allegations.

Yes – Morrison had found and read the Scripp/Mazzocchi report, which he summarizes at some length, including the parts about sexual relationships between teachers and students, Abreu being known as “El Führer,” the middle-class focus, the kids being gagged from speaking publicly about their pay and hours, and so on. He even gets into the dodgy IDB cost-benefit analysis, which, as he notes, seems to have underpinned the recent evaluation of Sistema Scotland, despite the fact that it had been disowned by the bank several years earlier. (See also Tom Service’s article about this a while back in The Guardian.)

Morrison’s skepticism continues, as he questions whether UK Sistema projects significantly diversify orchestral training or rather

divert disproportionately large sums of sparse public money away from more established schemes

and he describes Dudamel’s infamous “I am neither a politician nor an activist” op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in September with two words:

Stirring platitudes.

I have been critical of journalists before on this blog, and with good reason – and the Bolívars continue to be preceded around Europe by an advance guard of unresearched and unthinking hagiographies from the media. France Musique was at it a couple of days ago with a big piece entitled “El Sistema, le programme d’éducation musicale qui a transformé la société vénézuélienne.” And the evidence of that transformation is… where? What has it been transformed into? Has the writer of those words got any idea about what’s going on in Venezuela right now? The gulf between fantasy and reality here is remarkable.

Continuing in this vein, El Sistema’s executive director Eduardo Méndez was allowed to make the following statement unchallenged:

Nous conservons une grande marge de liberté et nous ne délivrons aucun message politique. Nous ne sommes pas au service de la politique mais de l’ensemble de la communauté.

This despite the fact that, according to a report in the newspaper El Nacional, El Sistema pressurized núcleo directors to ensure that their employees voted for the government in the December 2015 elections. The program’s musicians have also participated extensively in political campaigns and ceremonies. These are not state secrets, yet major media outlets continue to overlook the obvious contradictions in public statements by Dudamel, Méndez, and others. The reality is that it’s much easier to pick up a good-sounding story than it is to research it properly, as this amusing (if completely tangential) article reveals.

Still, Morrison’s article gives me hope that, more than a year after the publication of my book, but with Scripp and Mazzocchi’s article now in the public realm, the media, and not just isolated journalists, may yet get the message.


*Incidentally, since Morrison had read Scripp’s article, he could have put the anonymity issue to bed once and for all. Scripp writes:

Mazzocchi understands that guaranteeing anonymity is a standard practice for investigative reporting when informants have much to lose by testifying publicly against powerful people and their well-financed government programs. While critics of Baker ’s book are willing to attack the testimony reported there as unsubstantiated hearsay, Mazzocchi agrees that Baker was ethically bound to protect the identity of his sources, which Mazzocchi views as credible.

Scripp adds:

For Mazzocchi, El Sistema’s veil of secrecy is real and its power of censorship can suddenly extend to all members and levels of the organization at any time. When asked in the interview, “why is it that most people in El Sistema had to be anonymous when they spoke to Geoff Baker, that whatever they said, they had to be protected by anonymity? Why would that be, if there’s such support for Abreu and so much success in the end?,” Mazzocchi replied:
“Well, let me tell you this. The more I tell people that I’m doing this interview with you, the people in Caracas or in Venezuela, not only in Caracas, the more they tell me to make this anonymous. They say, ‘Don’t give him your name, don’t give your name.’ They all tell me, ‘If you had any hopes of doing any musical work in Venezuela in the future, forget about it if you give him your name.’”