Bruno Campo and the Cult of the Maestro (part 2)

(for part 1, see here)

Many will argue that the Bruno Campo affair is a case of a bad apple, if they are willing to discuss it at all. I would disagree: I think we also need to look closely at the barrel.

The Guatemalan investigation does not portray an unexpected or freak scenario. In fact, it closely matches the stereotype of the charismatic but dictatorial and abusive maestro that has come under the spotlight in the last few years, particularly with #MeToo. Campo appears not as an exception, but rather as the epitome of a historical rule (if one that is fortunately fading today). His behaviour was intimately connected to the orchestral world from which he came and to a characteristic mode of leadership within it. Furthermore, the article closely matches the depiction of the original Venezuelan Sistema and its founder in my book. The program that Campo created revealed him to be a true disciple of Abreu, not a wayward son. Even his political instrumentalization of young musicians in return for funds and power is a direct reflection of Abreu’s tactic in Venezuela. In other words, what transpired in Guatemala was part of the model, highlighting the design flaws within it, rather than an example of it going wrong.

El Sistema might be considered, at a deep level, an abusive model. Allegations of systemic domination, manipulation, and exploitation can be found in studies by Estrada (1997) and Scripp (2015) as well as extensively in my own book. One Sistema participant told Estrada: “the sound of the orchestras is achieved via traumatic strategies, which bring a psychological and emotional cost.” Another described extreme working practices in the famous Sistema núcleo at La Rinconada:

the kids had to work on weekends from the morning into the late evening, when there is a concert it’s horrible, they even have to miss school and everything because they have a rehearsal in the mornings, during exams on Saturdays and Sundays, they shut them away, […] they’re isolated, it’s work morning, noon, and night.

The secret of Abreu’s “success” was simply to push students harder than anyone else. Characteristic Sistema practices such as excessively long rehearsals and the trial-by-fire “stand-by-stand technique” began with him. El Sistema’s famed intensity is sometimes a euphemism for a militaristic style and a cavalier attitude towards students’ wellbeing (for example, failing to provide breaks in rehearsals or to take playing-related injuries seriously). As the program grew, some of its musicians may have softened these practices (they are not all “Philanthropic Ogres” like Abreu), but instances of abuse, such as those reported in Guatemala, should not be seen as aberrations but rather as expressions of the Sistema approach.

The program’s leaders and advocates constantly claim that El Sistema is not aimed at training professional musicians (a classic piece of doublespeak, since this is precisely why it was created) but is rather a source of joy and social benefits in its own right. The final paragraph of Vincent Agrech’s short article on the Campo affair tells a different story:

“Several professional musicians settled in Europe and from Sistema Guatemala confirmed to me the oppressive atmosphere that the former director cast over their years of study. Yet they stressed that without the teaching that was provided to them through his commitment to the project, they would never have had the opportunity to escape poverty and make a career abroad today.”

In other words, a professional musical career does indeed appear as the goal and the prize, and the musical training as something to be endured rather than enjoyed en route to it.

El Sistema is also – and not coincidentally – a maestro-centred model, whether at the level of the whole program (Abreu, Dudamel) or of individual orchestras and offshoots like El Sistema Guatemala. El Sistema and its acolytes venerate charismatic, powerful, male leaders, particularly “El Maestro” himself (Abreu), and the program has become a production line of male conductors. At times it feels like this is in fact El Sistema’s core business, and the rest of its musical training a support act. Resting on a great imbalance of power, this maestro-centred model brings particular risks – a heightened possibility of abuse in all its forms – and so once again, we should not be surprised by revelations such as those from Guatemala, any more than we should be surprised by recent stories exposing the misdemeanours of high-profile conductors in Europe and North America.

Nearly five years ago, l wrote:

The knottiest question of all, however, is whether intensive classical music education is the most suitable focus for a program centered on vulnerable children and youths. Power imbalances are at the core of sexual abuse, and they are as evident in El Sistema as in classical music institutions in other countries. Given the emerging evidence of an endemic culture of abuse in such institutions, putting vulnerable children in this situation looks like a high-risk strategy. […] Classical music education appears to be a problematic sphere, and adding at-risk youths may be creating a potentially volatile combination.

The recent allegations from Guatemala simply underline this point: El Sistema is a high-risk approach to social development for at-risk youth. It places them under the control of a powerful, usually male individual, in a system in which advancement rests in that person’s hands and so compliance and silence are advantageous, in a culture that venerates such figures and has historically normalized oppressive behaviour. In other words, this system takes vulnerable children and puts them in an even more vulnerable position. In an ironic twist in Guatemala, the more students loved music, the more exposed they were, because the more reluctant they were to risk losing their present passion and their dreams of the future by protesting against abusive behaviour. With a scrupulous and sensitive musician at the top, it may be that nothing goes wrong in such a system, even if the educational gains may be more limited than with a more horizontal, student-centred model; but with an unprincipled or despotic musician in charge, the potential for abuse is considerable, and the potential for swift reaction is limited.

An important aspect of this analysis is that it suggests that the larger story is not about sexual abuse – however serious that may be – but about power, or the abuse of power, centred on the figure of the maestro. Accordingly, allegations of sexual abuse cannot be dismissed as the actions of isolated deviants in an otherwise beneficent system, but rather as symptoms of deeper causes, meaning that more profound action is required than simply excising the rare individual culprits who are caught out.

To be clear, I am not suggesting a blanket condemnation of conductors, but rather a long, hard, critical look at the figure of the maestro, that patriarchal, “transcendent figure of classical music ‘excellence’ – always maestro, never maestra – pervading over the orchestra like an ominous musical Cheshire cat.” The issue is not a musical post, but rather the cult of the maestro, or as Zack Ferriday puts it, the “maestro complex,” which entails both attribution and self-attribution of superior status, relying on “the strange pedestal-building cultures within classical music.” Maestro is not a neutral label, but rather a term that “continues to do the dirty work of excusing bad behaviour, or even of just assuming that everything is OK, that we lesser beings should jostle among each other to bask in the rays of self-affirming excellence.” What is at stake here is an ideology and style of musical leadership rather than musical leadership per se.

The problem is not then that El Sistema trains conductors – it’s that it grants them so much priority, power, and status. The program feeds and reproduces the cult of the maestro, which normalizes many of the attitudes and behaviours of which Campo is accused. (Indeed, The Cult of the Maestro would be a great title for a book about El Sistema; I wish I had thought of that 5 years ago.)

Critique has been gathering pace along with #MeToo. Jennifer Johnston identifies the cult of the maestro as “endemic in classical music” and at the heart of its problems, and she declares: “We need sweeping cultural change.” In his powerful article on James 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.”

Ferriday argues that a “cult of interpretive genius” led many people within cultural institutions to give Levine a free pass.

More and more people today are recognizing the spell cast by a charismatic maestro as a problem in classical music, yet in El Sistema the idolization of this figure, and the reproduction of the highly unequal star system, continues unabated. Certainly, accusations of sexual abuse need to be investigated thoroughly; but beyond that, this field needs some of Johnston’s “sweeping cultural change.”


Events in Guatemala are an important reminder that there is more to “the power of music” than uplifting stories about music and the brain going viral on social media. The sheer quantity of sexual abuse allegations and convictions emerging from musical institutions over the last few years leave little doubt that music’s power also has a darker side. Yet the music sphere is particularly prone to ignoring the second half of this ambiguous picture.

The accounts emerging from Guatemala illustrate (not for the first time) that there can be a world of difference between the hype and the reality of “social action through music.” Bruno Campo built his career on the notion of El Sistema as a medium of social transformation, yet even leaving aside the accusations of sexual abuse, multiple witnesses have portrayed him as a manipulative despot. As Isabel Ciudad Real put it bluntly: “The principal aim of the project was to foster values and ethics through music. [Campo’s behaviour] went totally against that.” Yet this hypocrisy, too, was systemic rather than simply individual – fostered by the field in which he worked, in which such a gap between rhetoric and reality is quite commonplace and of little concern to some.

“Social action through music” is a bubble of hype, invented in the mid-1990s by Abreu without any solid foundation in evidence, projected backwards in time to create an origin myth, and never since proven to be effective. Gustavo Dudamel receives standing ovations around the globe for proclamations like: “With these instruments and this music, we can change the world, and we are doing it,” even as his country disintegrates, his program crumbles, and his orchestra scatters to the four winds. He and other Sistema leaders insist that the organization is non-political, even as it carries out overtly political activities in Caracas on behalf of the increasingly discredited Maduro government – most recently, receiving UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet with a musical offering “as a gesture of fraternity and Bolivarian diplomacy of peace.” But since El Sistema’s leaders have long since enjoyed an almost total lack of critical scrutiny at home and abroad and realised that even their most far-fetched statements will lapped up by most journalists and classical music fans, they continue to produce such hot air unabated.

According to a Sistema Europe press release about Campo, in 2017 “Sistema Europe’s processes […] revealed an area of concern, [and] he has not been involved in Sistema Europe projects in any capacity since then.” However, in April 2018 Campo lectured in Graz on “The Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra, Athens 2017 and introducing SEYO London/Birmingham 2018,” alongside leading El Sistema advocate Eric Booth. In May 2018, he was the moderator at a major El Sistema event at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, appearing alongside leaders from Venezuela and Sistema Europe.

It seems that Sistema Europe was sufficiently concerned about Campo to prevent him from working with its children – yet he continued to play a key role at official El Sistema events, promoting its activities and waxing about the transformative power of music. This makes the talk of “social action through music” look pretty cheap. Campo may have said one thing and done another, but here again, he was not so much a bad apple as a fruit of the System.

This story is yet another warning to look critically at the Sistema myth – both at its production and its reception. On the one hand, the Sistema hype machine – the press officers, communications consultants, media cheerleaders, and advocacy bodies – has whitewashed some pretty dubious reputations, whether by accident (i.e. ignorance) or by design; there are other well-known Sistema figures who are rumoured to have pasts as chequered as Campo’s. On the other hand, the Sistema myth depends on a naïve utopianism among some adherents that is potentially complicit in the propagation of problems, since it can lead to a lack of oversight or attention to negative possibilities.

Now Sistema Europe and a number of its affiliate programs will be scrambling to work out how they could have welcomed someone with such a personality and past as a champion of social action through music and allowed him to work unfettered with young people across Europe for several years.

In a press release, Sistema England describes the Campo affair as

“a wake-up call to us all, to fully empower young people to understand what their rights are, what abuse of power can look, sound and feel like.”

This is not the first wake-up call they have had; I warned of this issue nearly five years ago. I noted the prevalence of sexual relationships between staff and students, the allegations of sexual misconduct, and the lack of safeguarding; I described “what abuse of power can look, sound and feel like” in great detail; but the Sistema sphere, abetted by some prominent classical music journalists, decided to shoot the messenger.

If they are going to take the issue seriously this time round, there are two important steps to consider. The first would be to look more carefully at their vetting procedures, as Sistema England notes, and their collaborators. International Sistema programs have a tendency to be wowed by anyone who has come through the ranks of the Venezuelan program, despite its well-documented problems. Yet as the Campo case illustrates, the impressive CV of a rising star conductor can hide vital information. There are at least two other figures who have worked with European Sistema programs recently who come trailing unsavoury allegations from their home countries, yet as far as I know they have not been exposed like Campo. And such information is not exactly deeply buried. Vincent Agrech does not seem to have struggled to find relevant information, and it took me one phone-call to verify the general portrait of Campo in the Guatemalan investigation; could Sistema Europe not have made such a call? I have heard the allegations against one of the other conductors repeatedly from different sources over a period of years, while the third was a cause célèbre a few years ago. It really shouldn’t be hard to avoid some of the more dubious figures simply by keeping an ear to the ground and making judicious enquiries.

That said, it is very rare that allegations of sexual impropriety transition into formal complaints, full investigations, and convictions. To put it bluntly, most perpetrators get away with it. Identifying individuals who pose risks to children does therefore bring challenges, even more so in an international field like Sistema. The second step is thus to look critically at the cult of the maestro that lies at the heart of El Sistema and to reflect on its relationship to abuse of power. Vetting and safeguarding are very important, but they deal with the symptoms, not the causes. Such efforts must therefore be accompanied by careful and honest scrutiny of the contexts and cultural dynamics that allow abuse to fester. Clearly and explicitly rejecting the hierarchical, authoritarian cult of the maestro would bring both educational benefits and increased safety.

On a final note, the allegations that have just come to light in Guatemala are not new; most are around a decade old. They were also, it seems, relatively common knowledge. There were even attempts to raise official complaints, but they led nowhere, perhaps because the individuals and institutions involved were sufficiently powerful to ride them out. But a chance series of small actions, starting on social media, got the ball rolling again in 2019, and led to a full journalistic investigation. In other words, even when an awful lot of dubious actions have occurred, it takes an awful lot to happen (and significant elements of chance, courage, and persistence) for them to break into a public scandal, let alone one visible in Europe. Many similar allegations simply never reach the light of day. So it would be a big mistake to assume that this is a story of an isolated bad apple.