Journey Into the Dark Heart of El Sistema

So what were the chances that an organization named El Sistema would turn out to have some creepy, cultish undertones? Fairly high, huh?

Going beyond the usual, tired  polemics, Lawrence Scrips builds a deep dive into El Sistema around a series of in-depth interviews with Luigi Mazzocchi, one of El Sistema’s most successful alumns.

Mazzocchi, we learn, is “concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and associate concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony, who studied for 15 years in El Sistema starting at age nine, and rose to become a member of its top orchestras and a soloist in Venezuela.”

El Sistema’s organization, however, was characterized by Mazzocchi as “controlled chaos”—an extreme unpredictability of working and payment schedules, which obliged many musicians in the program to abandon commitments outside of the orchestra and, in doing so, give up a considerable degree of control over their lives. Chaos was compounded by a culture of secrecy: ‘information was always a privilege of the few on top. So it was hard to prepare. It was hard to know what was going on.’ This combination was experienced, according to Mazzocchi, as a feeling of harassment or manipulation.

“It was not only decisions about repertoire, but who was playing and where the orchestra was going, or if somebody had been given a new position or whatever, it was always kind of secret. And many times, especially in Barquisimetoand the interior, we were told we were traveling, we were touring, and we didn’t know the dates.  It was either this month or the next month. And until the last minute, we didn’t know usually; then things didn’t work out.They would add rehearsals at any time. You had to be available. Usually we rehearsed at night and they would say, ‘Well, tomorrow, we have to be here at 2 p.m. and then do a double rehearsal.’ So you had to cancel everything else that you were doing. When it was a youth orchestra, it was actually a lot more extensive, a lot worse than that. If you had to prepare for an important concert, not even a tour, but an important concert that would mean getting more funds from a company or from the government, then it could [be] all day, it could last for a weekend. Sometimes, we had to miss school without warning to prepare for a concert, because that was the ultimate goal. It was always more important than anything else, which is something that had parents very concerned most of the time.”