Abreu’s phantom PhD

One of the most salient facts about El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, and one that shaped my understanding of his career and achievements, turns out not to be a fact at all. It appears he does not hold a PhD in petroleum economics from the University of Pennsylvania, as stated until a couple of days ago on El Sistema’s website, more permanently in the program’s official history, Chefi Borzacchini’s Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios, and in a variety of other sources, such as Abreu’s biography in major prize and honorary doctorate announcements. (I’m guilty of spreading this incorrect information too; despite all my doubts about Abreu and El Sistema, it never occurred to me that there would be a major factual error in his biography.) This information has been presented in official sources and circulated widely since at least 2010, and possibly much longer (I don’t have a copy of Borzacchini’s first book on El Sistema, Venezuela sembrada de orquestas, but this blog post suggests the PhD information was included in the 2004 volume as well).

Why is this significant? Misstating qualifications is quite a serious matter in itself, particular when a major public figure is involved. (Don’t forget, Abreu was a government minister and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.) But it also illustrates the bigger point that I’ve been making for several years: all is not as it seems with Abreu and El Sistema.

This is not the first time that a journalist has raised doubts about the maestro and his grand enterprises, and in particular about appearances versus reality. In 1990, Roger Santodomingo questioned Abreu’s “strange, improvised movement” of funds while he was president of the National Council for Culture. The journalist portrayed Abreu as fixated with display, and his main source, Joaquín López Mujica, alleged that large sums were assigned to new initiatives, but many resulted in “phantom institutes or programs that have never been launched.”

In 1994, Rafael Rivero painted a colourful and very mixed picture of Abreu, who, according to the author, undertook “a pre-emptive labour of self-promotion.” Rivero quoted another journalist: “Achievements aside, it is unpleasant to discover how he has manipulated information.” In the early seventies, political allies signed up Abreu to negotiate with former dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Madrid. “But the preparations for the interview got delayed and the brilliant young politician – who nevertheless already sported a shiny balding head – did not have time to put his name down on Venezuela’s electoral register. Newspapers in the capital would later, with predictable cruelty, rake over this muddled of case of fake IDs and compulsive registration processes.” Rivero signs off with the opinions of two cultural observers who claim that “for Abreu, culture is a fashion show, a swindle,” and that “under Abreu there has been no culture, just a lavish and self-congratulatory spectacle.”

Much more recently, in January 2017, Ibsen Martínez wrote a pair of highly critical articles in El País, describing the programme as “that ongoing rip-off, that vast populist swindle, that product of the corrupt Venezuelan petro-state.” I wonder what such Venezuelan journalists will make of the latest news.

In the English-speaking world, however, many journalists have been less informed, less inquisitive, and more gullible. There have been some honourable exceptions – they know who they are – but very few in the media listened to the calls in my 2014 book to look more carefully at this topic. Indeed, some prominent classical music journalists looked more like they were trying to kill the story, and in terms of wider public opinion, they succeeded.

Yet as the last three years have gone by, fundamental pillars of the Sistema story have started to crumble when examined closely: the idea that it was created as a social program, for example, or that it caters largely to the poor, or that it is essentially apolitical. (The list is considerably longer.) The media may have paid little attention to the growing holes in the picture that it helped to create, but they are there for all to see.

This, I would suggest, is the context for the non-PhD revelation, which is in turn indicative of the wider issue: the question marks over the whole story of Abreu and his System. As I see it, this is about more than just a factual error.

Venezuelan journalists and musicians, as well as several foreign researchers, have repeatedly raised broader concerns about Abreu and El Sistema, yet the official narrative – backed by powerful individuals and institutions and large amounts of money, not to mention the classical music industry – has remained largely undisturbed. But as I wrote just yesterday, we are now in the era of #MeToo: a time for calling out and re-examining old problems, and asking why known issues were not investigated more fully. The James Levine scandal has seen several classical music journalists put on the spot for failing to respond adequately to pervasive rumours.

Calls for firm action on the culture of classical music are coming from all sides. In his powerful article on Levine, Ben Miller proposes: “In order to make and hear music in healthy ways […], we must destroy and replace the insular star system and the dysfunctional and unjust accumulations of power it enables.” Jennifer Johnston argues simply: “We need sweeping cultural change.”

In the present climate, the growing list of holes in the Sistema story can no longer be ignored. The phantom PhD is an invitation to cast off El Sistema’s spell and look more closely at “perhaps the single greatest classical music myth of our time.”

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