The cult in the spotlight

[13/10/2016] There have been so many Sistema goings-on in the media over the last month that it’s been hard to keep up. This is just a brief summary – more analysis is on its way, as soon as I have time to write it.

First of all, the publication of Tunstall and Booth’s book Playing for their Lives was met by a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from Norman Lebrecht (in the Wall Street Journal) and Anne Midgette (Washington Post). Seeing Sistema described as a “cult” and “the Starbucks of music education” must have been rather sobering for the authors and their fans, given that they enthusiastically embraced trial-by-media a couple of years ago. Hopefully they will be reconsidering their decision to ignore all the academic research on El Sistema, something that both critics spotted.

The Sistema-inspired field, too, may be reconsidering, in their case the advisability of granting these two figures such a big advocacy role. Tunstall and Booth may have done Sistema more harm with their “flabby, ardent” advocacy than any sceptic. They have also damaged their own reputation by choosing to shore up their earlier misguided writings rather than reassess them in the light of the emerging research. I have major reservations about the Sistema philosophy – not least because I know where it comes from – but there are some good people working in these programs, and they deserve properly qualified and informed leadership.

Hot on the heels of this book followed unflattering portraits of OrchKids, the prominent Sistema-inspired program in Baltimore, by two of its teachers (both were originally published on Facebook, and one was subsequently reproduced elsewhere). The timing could hardly have been worse for Tunstall and Booth, given that the incident pointed up all too clearly the kinds of issues that had been covered up in their whitewashed account of the Sistema-inspired field. Although it’s too early to know how this situation is going to turn out, it seems that there are complexities and tensions beneath the apparently harmonious surface of Sistema. (Who’d a thunk it? Umm, quite a few people actually.)

Then Gustavo Dudamel popped up at the White House to receive a medal and make a speech, which he used to acknowledge briefly, and for the first time, that Venezuela is going through a crisis, and to ask (in barely veiled terms) for more money for El Sistema. This was another first, and it had Sistemologists’ ears twitching. Is this another sign that all is not well with the program’s finances? That even the untouchable El Sistema has been touched by the crisis?

Dudamel’s speech was not well received. It produced a scathing response from Gabriela Montero, who – to judge by hundreds of comments on social media, including on Dudamel’s fan page – caught the mood of a large swathe of Venezuelans who have had enough of the dashing conductor’s political silences and alliances. “Tarde piaste pajarito” was the phrase I read most often that week.

Montero’s was not the only critical response. Ángel Alayón, a former Sistema student with a benevolent view of the program, asked whether Dudamel should really be prioritizing his music program at a time when food, medicine, and security were in short supply. Much stronger was the reaction of Fernando Rodríguez in El Nacional, who lambasted Dudamel for his political stance, lack of ethical responsibility, poor taste, and selfishness, which the author summed up as a “hypocritical masquerade.” I can’t remember the last time I read such trenchant criticism of El Sistema in the Venezuelan mainstream media. Is Abreu’s legendary iron grip over the press weakening along with his program’s finances?

It seemed as though some respite might be on the way with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra’s residency at Carnegie Hall. However bad things get at home, El Sistema can usually be guaranteed a warm reception and an easy ride from journalists in the global North. But what’s this? Three sceptical reviews from New York music critics (here, here, and here). They had twigged to two things: the dissonance between the orchestra and its home context; and issues over musical quality. On the second point, there are echoes of the orchestra’s reception in London in early 2015 (see my earlier blog post).

Is the orchestra really sounding worse, or are critics hearing it differently? I would suggest both. My own experience suggests that the more one knows about what lies behind the orchestra, the less one enjoys its performances. It’s surely no coincidence that Richard Morrison at The Times, the biggest London critic of the orchestra’s musical results, is also a Sistema sceptic. The wearing-off of the orchestra’s novelty is also partly responsible for the more equivocal responses today. But it’s possible that the orchestra really is sounding worse. After all, some of its top musicians have left recently, and it does not have world-class players lining up to replace them in the way that a leading European or North American orchestra would. The coup of securing the opening of the Carnegie Hall season seems to have backfired somewhat, since it invited unflattering comparisons with previous incumbents such as the Berlin Phil and New York Phil. Abreu’s dream of a world-class Venezuelan orchestra – the real driving force behind El Sistema, though one that was later obscured by talk of social action through music – now seems to be receding.

In the UK, we’ve become more used to mixed responses to the SBSO and El Sistema, thanks to journalists like Richard Morrison, Tom Service (BBC/The Guardian), and Damian Thompson (The Spectator). In contrast, the US had been more compliant up to now. However, this series of critical articles on the Venezuelan program and its international imitators in prominent US newspapers suggests that the bubble may have burst – which is what bubbles do, sooner or later.

More on all of this shortly…