Since it began in 1976, Venezuela’s innovative youth-orchestra program, El Sistema, has proven to be not only a highly successful way to introduce children to music but also a powerful tool for social transformation. Internationally known conductor Gustavo Dudamel, an alumnus of the program, and others are helping to spread this educational initiative to other countries around the world, including the United States.
A new documentary, “Crescendo! The Power of Music,” focuses on three children — two in west Philadelphia and one in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood — as they delve into American versions of El Sistema. The film, which will be screened at 3 p.m. Aug. 16 and 6:15 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, was produced and directed by Jamie Bernstein and Elizabeth Kling. Bernstein, a writer, broadcaster and concert narrator, is the daughter of famed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, who oversaw the New York Philharmonic’s groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts in 1958-72. (Her father also will be the focus of a special Beyond the Score presentation, “Bernstein in New York,” on Oct. 24-25 at Symphony Center.)
“About seven years ago,” Bernstein said via e-mail, “I went down to Venezuela to see for myself what this program was that was producing such intense, joyous and accomplished music-making in such young people. It sounded way too good to be true. But what I saw down there was even better than anything I could have imagined.
“The combination of infusing young people with the joy of music, together with putting it all to the purpose of social transformation for kids in poverty-stricken environments, seemed to roll together everything my father worked for in his lifetime into one magnificent initiative. So part of my reason for making the film was to be, in a sense, my father’s eyes and ears in observing what would happen as this visionary program made its way into communities in the U.S. When Elizabeth Kling and I started making the film, there were only a handful of Sistema-inspired programs around this country. By the time we premiered the film at the Philadelphia Film Festival last fall, there were well over 100! That is quite a growth rate.
“My bet is that the young people in these programs will not only experience great personal transformation, but will also infuse their communities with all kinds of positive energy, and, further down the line, may also hold the key to the survival and renaissance of symphony orchestras – and their audiences – in this country.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.