Oregon BRAVO Youth Orchestras: El Sistema comes to Oregon

Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar performing in the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, 198?

Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar performing in the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

A few years ago, Oregon Symphony violinist Ines Voglar returned to her native Venezuela and saw a performance of the country’s renowned national youth orchestra. “I was blown away,” she recalls. “They were playing Mahler’s Symphony #2, with a full choir, a deaf choir that ‘sings in sign language, 75 violins, 20 basses” – a colossal orchestra. And they played it brilliantly. “It gave me goosebumps,” Voglar told ArtsWatch.

It wasn’t just the exceptional quality of the music making, nor the sheer size of the orchestra, that impressed Voglar. She was amazed at how the youth orchestra, and the innovative educational program that produced, had transformed hundreds of kids, many of them from impoverished backgrounds, into such superb musicians. And she’s very excited that a program inspired by that renowned educational system born in Venezuela, popularly known as “El Sistema,” is coming to Oregon.

Voglar performed at Portland's Old Church in May.

Voglar performed at Portland’s Old Church in May.

Tonight, a concert at Portland’s Old Church kicks off that ambitious new educational effort. It’s an introduction to and, for audience members so inclined, a fundraiser for a new organization called Oregon BRAVO Youth Orchestras which this fall launches a free, intensive, classical music education program for almost 200 kindergarten through third grade students at one of Portland’s public schools in direst need of music education, Rosa Parks Elementary.
A member organization of the National Alliance of El Sistema Inspired Programs, Oregon BRAVO will be the first in Oregon, and 80th in the United States, which is one of 50 countries that boast Sistema programs. Since its inception in 1975, El Sistema, which became world famous when one of its graduates, conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was named music director of one of the world’s leading orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age 26 a few years ago, has taught Western classical music to more 800,000 Venezuelan children from impoverished backgrounds.

Young fiddler Ines Voglar with her teacher.

Young fiddler Ines Voglar with her teacher.

Social Change through Music

When she was growing up in the city of Valencia in the 1980s, Voglar’s family was more middle class than poor, but every student had access to instruments lent by the school, and all of them worked hard, taking music classes after school till 10 pm. Voglar started studying music (solfege singing, then reading music, theory, violin technique and the rest) at age five in the Youth Orchestra of Venezuela’s youngest (of three) level. In public performances with her home state Carabobo Youth Orchestra beginning when she was six, Voglar and the other young players worked their way up from “Pomp and Circumstance” marches through complex masterpieces like Beethoven’s Symphony #5.

When she was a teenager, Voglar helped teach the younger students. She met Dudamel, who studied with the same teacher a year after she did, at a music camp when both were teenagers. That camp featured visiting teachers as renowned as conductors James Levine, Bobby McFerrin and Mstislav Rostropovich. Voglar eventually found her way to the US, studying at Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon universities, then joined the Pittsburgh Symphony before signing up with the Oregon Symphony in 2004. She also directed FearNoMusic ensemble from 2005-2011.
dudamel & kids But El Sistema’s goal — and Bravo’s — isn’t necessarily to produce professional musicians like Voglar and Dudamel, but rather to overcome poverty and inequality.

“Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty,” the program’s founder, JosĂ© Antonio Abreu, told “60 Minutes” in 2008. “A child’s physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides.”

In a recent presentation at a music conference at Lewis & Clark College, UCLA music professor Robert Fink criticized El Sistema for, among other things, propagating the idea that music education alone can solve the problems of poverty, replacing rather than complementing massive government investment in social services and health care and such. Some of its supporters’ rhetoric, Fink said, leads to policies that focus on music education’s alleged improvement in poor people’s spiritual well being – at the expense of committing the resources needed to make their lives materially better. That’s a debate for later, and one we hope to have here on OAW.

Larger policy questions aside, giving Oregon kids who otherwise couldn’t afford access to classical music education can have all sorts of positive effects on their educational achievement. Starting this fall, the program at Rosa Parks Elementary (95% of whose students are impoverished) will provide all students in K-1 with group violin lessons; 40 second and third graders will have an after-school orchestra and chorus class two hours each day, five days per week. The school has a music room, but has lacked funds to hire music teachers.

“The reason [El Sistema] works is because it’s free, so everyone has a chance to participate,” Voglar explains, noting that while in Venezuela, the program is subsidized by the government, “here, you have to beg for money.” She and fellow OSO musicians violist Jen Arnold, cellist Marilyn de Oliveira and violinist Greg Ewer, along with OSO music director Carlos Kalmar and Portland Youth Philharmonic music director David Hattner, will headline tonight’s introductory concert at Portland’s Old Church. Members of PYP and Metropolitan Youth Symphony (both partners of BRAVO, as are the OSO, Portland Public Schools and other institutions) will also perform. The program includes music by Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, William Bolcom, and more, a gospel chorus, and a presentation including slides and short video clips from El Sistema programs in Venezuela and around the US. Admission is free, but reservations are requested (rsvp@oregonbravo.org) and donations accepted.

Seth Truby is executive director of Oregon BRAVO Youth Orchestras.

Seth Truby is executive director of Oregon BRAVO Youth Orchestras.

The local organization is spearheaded by musician, educator and violin maker Seth Truby, formerly Chamber Music Northwest’s director of development and community engagement. Another local connection: Oregon Symphony president Tony Woodcock now heads the New England Conservatory, which has offered Sistema fellowships, including one awarded to Portland’s Megan Moran, who begins her study at NEC next year.
Voglar plans to be involved in the Portland effort in some manner, although she has a young child of her own and her professional obligations to the OSO and FNM. “It’s very close to my heart,” she says. “It’s something should happen everywhere. I’m so excited that it’s coming here.”

Along with the new Oregon Music Festival, which produced its first workshops and concert last month, BRAVO represents a new influx of classical music education efforts aimed at young Oregonians. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more information about them as they develop.

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