- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - The head of Venezuela’s famed youth orchestra network says he will strive to uphold the program’s legacy of musical excellence and social service as it faces one of the toughest periods in its history following the death of its charismatic founder.

In an interview at the network’s Caracas headquarters, executive director Eduardo Mendez said the program must overcome a crippling economic crisis that has forced hundreds of musicians to leave the country and move on from the loss of Jose Antonio Abreu, who created the orchestra network known as El Sistema.

“We will have to multiply into thousands of Abreus,” Mendez said.

Abreu, who died Saturday at age 78, was a consummate musician and astute politician who secured government funding for El Sistema and turned it into one of Venezuela’s showpiece government-run programs. It now has around 300 music schools that connect children, many of modest means, with classical music. It has also produced a crop of world-renowned musicians, including Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel.

Mendez acknowledged that steering the orchestra network through Venezuela’s social and economic crisis will not be easy.

He said 8 percent of the program’s teachers have recently left the country to seek a better life abroad. The network’s marquee Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has lost 42 percent of its musicians over the past six months, though most of the vacancies have been filled with younger musicians.

“It hasn’t been easy to convince people to stay,” Mendez said. “Many of these people are leaving in search of economic stability.”

Mendez, who worked alongside Abreu for 15 years, said his priority will be to strengthen musical initiation programs and explore new genres in the network’s academies. According to El Sistema’s figures, 980,000 children and young musicians are currently participating in its programs throughout Venezuela.

But Mendez will also have to avoid conflicts with El Sistema’s benefactor, Venezuela’s socialist government, which has been accused by critics of using the music program as a propaganda tool.

Tensions between El Sistema and Venezuelan officials surfaced last year when Abreu’s star protege, Dudamel, criticized efforts by President Nicolas Maduro that led to the installation of a constituent assembly dominated by government supporters that is seen by critics as another step toward dictatorship.

Maduro asked Dudamel to “not attack those of us who have been crucial to the expansion of the (musical) movement.”

Shortly after the heated exchange, Venezuelan officials suspended two tours by El Sistema ensembles through the United States and Asia, which were going to be conducted by Dudamel. No explanation was given for the cancellations.

Mendez said Dudamel will continue to be El Sistema’s creative director and is expected to lead several concerts in Venezuela in August and September. He might also participate in an exhibition on El Sistema at a United Nations summit in Vienna in May, Mendez said.

Asked if he will allow his musicians to voice their political views, Mendez said he would not censor anyone.

“Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and is responsible for saying or doing what they think is right,” Mendez said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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