A media storm seems to have been developed recently around the popularity of El Sistema (and its off-shoot, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra) along with the UK-based schemes such as In Harmony - Sistema England, which are inspired by it. Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote a certainly provocative and perhaps intemperate article for Classical Music magazine (28 June issue) in which he questioned much about the accepted wisdom of El Sistema and its UK incarnations. Amidst the challenging language, Toronyi-Lalic makes some fascinating points.
Two points in particular struck a chord with me. The first touches on that lovely issue of class, which always seems to be at that heart of any English enterprise.
'The enthusiasm with which people greet this fact troubles me. it troubles me because it comes across as if art is being used to civilise the lower orders'
The second, which I'll touch on again later, is a worry about where the enthusiasm might lead in terms of what the state expects from classical music.
'The more we blindly go along with this modern bout of gebrauchsmusik the more the state will demand orchestras jump through political hoops in exchange for public subsidy and the harder it will become to make a purely musical case for music'
Both of which need careful consideration, outside of any self-generated controversy. Music isn't inherently a social tool, and we have to be careful we don't lead cash strapped governments to expect to to always act as one.
From a UK point of view, I worry that the enthusiasm for El Sistema like schemes doesn't risk decrying and further downgrading the status of our own hard pressed music teaching system (which used to be pretty impressive). This leads to another worrying idea, touched on by Toronyi-Lalic, that government and funders will start to think that teaching music is an instrument of social change and not just a good in itself. That schemes (like the bulk-standard county music schemes) which simply aim to bring as much music to as many children as possible, will be looked at in askance.
Marshall Marcus, who has been involved in El Sistema for some time now, has taken Toronyi-Lalic's points seriously and in his blog, makes a thoughtful rebuttal. As has Tricia Tunstill, author of the standard book on El Sistema, (Changing Lives: El Sistema, Gustavo Dudamel and the transformative power of music). Her article was in the 14 July edition of Classical Music.
All three articles are certainly well worth reading and there is also a fine summary on the Classical Music Magazine news page.
The final word, though, should go to Zoe Martlew who in her blog, comments that the benefits of something like El Sistema very much depend on the musical vehicle being of high quality itself.