Daily Archives: 2 May 2012

What’s Cooking in the USA?

Below is an article commissioned for the May 2012 edition of The Ensemble, newsletter of the Sistema movement in the US. Links to the newsletter can be found below this Blog.

Sistema USA: at the Crossroads …

The imposing Milanese Castello Sforzesco in northern Italy houses a fascinating museum of musical instruments; room after room of an astonishing variety of stringed and violin-like instruments that developed through the couple of centuries leading up to Stradivarius. Every shape of the nascent modern string family is present.

(A snippet of the extraordinary instruments on display can be found at this Youtube address, and a beautifully detailed tour of the castle here). It ’s a Darwinian sea of free evolution with dozens of creative tryouts before the modern violin family was finally established during the seventeenth century.

Now in case you’re wondering why I’m mentioning this, it’s not simply to expose the musings of an eccentric Englishman, but because that sensation of wandering through the museum’s rooms and marvelling at the variety of human endeavour on view was exactly how I felt at the recent LA Phil ‘Take a Stand’ symposium in January. What was on show in ‘Take a Stand’ was definitely the equivalent of the Darwinian evolutionary soup that followed the creation of life on our planet. And fascinating it was too.

The inevitable symposium group photo. Like Milan, like LA: spot the variety …

Armed with the luxury of being a visitor in U.S. waters, I tried to wander round the symposium with an open eye, to sense what was cooking in the U.S. Sistema world. And boy I can report there is plenty going on. What strikes me is how utterly different all the U.S. sistemas are, despite their all signing up to essentially the same set of Sistema values. Everything from big established metropolitan projects backed by world class orchestras and eye-watering budgets to small humble new operations in sometimes almost rural settings. From big formal classical projects to street wise bucket bands, and everything in between. Then there is the O0oomph of it; the U.S. sistemas are to be congratulated not only on their variety, but also their endeavour, application, enthusiasm and intent. The energy over the three days was palpable.  Of course, context is everything, and the LA Phil’s partnership with Longy and Bard certainly provided that, with the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Disney Concert Hall (a concert hall confection like nowhere else),

plus the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, and plenty of Gustav Mahler. Empire Dudamel was just the ticket. And so it was that hundreds of delegates from Sistemas in 27 U.S. states turned up, alongside curious visitors from 13 countries.

But what actually happened? Clear judgement can easily be a casualty as you get seduced by the heady combination of El Sistema USA’s passion and enthusiasm; yet underneath the symposium’s almost revivalist fervour there was some interesting undertow. The big subtext question I saw was, ‘OK, this is all great, but how shall we organise ourselves and connect together nationally?’ And with El Sistema USA, The Sistema Fellows, The League 360, Take a Stand, Longy, Bard, NEC and a nascent new Association, there’s a growing list of organizing umbrellas working at this question.

Far be it from me to give the answer, but I certainly have one observation to throw in: there’s such a great Sistema ecosystem going on in the U.S., make sure you don’t lose that delicate flora and fauna in the rush to organize. Don’t over-institutionalize. The best examples are often the least institutional, and the danger as El Sistema travels into cultures like many of ours – where process has an eternal tendency to smother ideals – is that old chestnut: Lost in Translation. There’s time for the models to develop, just as there was time for the plethora of proto-violins to become the Stradivarian item of sheer perfection that it still is today. I guess what this all shows  is that it’s not that easy to get the goods out of homeland Venezuela. And in this context, speed is no help. You chip away too quickly in the hope of successfully translating the model, and don’t notice that its centre is actually thereby withering.

Take the Renaissance Arts Academy. For me that was maybe the preeminent U.S. model at ‘Take a Stand.’ Simple. Powerful. Great leadership, radical ideas, and inspirational, joyful teachers. We have our marching orders. ‘Nuff said.

Note: The full Ensemble newsletter can be read here, thanks to Glenn Thomas’s drop box.