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New England Conservatory, El Sistema ‘Friend’ Each Other, Again

BOSTON — The New England Conservatory announced Thursday that it will continue its relationship with El Sistema, the global organization dedicated to changing disadvantaged children’s lives through music.

NEC President Tony Woodcock traveled to Venezuela to join El Sistema Director Eduardo Mendez in signing a renewed “friendship agreement.” This is the third such pact between the two institutions since 2005.

Reached by cellphone in a Caracas garden, Woodcock described the signing ceremony as “exciting and emotional.”

Mendez shared Woodcock’s enthusiasm for their shared future. Speaking on Woodcock’s cellphone, he said, “It’s very important that someone can believe in what we do here, and try to give us support so we can do more in the United States.”

The NEC and El Sistema have been nurturing an exchange system that seems to be satisfying both parties. Since 2009 the Boston-based conservatory has been sending 10 of its post-graduate music students to Caracas for intensive training in Sistema’s techniques.

“It’s really dedicated toward developing a new type of leadership,” Woodcock explained.

After completing their on-the-ground studies in South America, the goal is to have the young musicians teach for the Sistema network back home in the U.S. Chapters are operating in cities such as Boston, Pittsfield, Los Angeles, and Juneau, Alaska.

This year’s fellows are just wrapping up their year-long training, according to Woodcock. He said the musicians have traveled throughout Venezuela, and his observation is that they’ve been “transformed.”

El Sistema has been transforming lives for 33 years. Jose Antonio Abreu, a trained musician and social reformer, started the program in a Caracas parking garage with 11 disadvantaged children. Now it teaches 300,000. Kids start as early as age 2 or 3 and participate for free.

One of El Sistema’s most famous graduates is conductor Gustavo Dudamel. He leads the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and is also the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director.

At Thursday’s ceremony it was also made official that the NEC and El Sistema will be changing the name of their education exchange. What was formerly known as the Abreu Fellows Program will now be called the Sistema Fellow Program at the New England Conservatory.

“We did that because Maestro Arbeu is a great humanitarian and a great man — but he’s also a very modest man,” Woodcock told me, “and he feels that it’s always about the program. The program is much bigger than he is. So it shouldn’t be named after an individual; it should be named after a system.”

Mendez also said he’s thrilled over plans to have NEC faculty members travel to Caracas in the coming months. Woodcock explained that El Sistema is known for its strong symphonic curriculum, but the chamber music program could use a little TLC.

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