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Marin Alsop: A Utopian Musical Dream From South America

Discovering Brazil has been a series of wonderful revelations for me. As principal conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra for the past year, I have been deeply moved and even changed by my exposure to this culture of passion and positivity.

Brazil's inherent societal belief that music improves quality of life, contributes to improved social behavior, and is an important vehicle to establish a peaceful society filled with tolerance and respect is a philosophy I once thought existed only in my utopian dreams.

This philosophy was first promoted by Dr. Jose Abreu, the man responsible for establishing the El Sistema movement of music education in Venezuela almost 40 years ago. The program, which launched the career of superstar conductor Gustavo Dudamel, has reached more than 2 million Venezuelan children, transforming lives and creating a safe haven for many of these youngsters from lives of crime and poverty.

Recently, the Brazilian government declared music to be mandatory in elementary and secondary school, and officials are currently creating teacher training programs to serve all children.

At the same time, other countries with a history of music education are restudying the impact of that education on the lives of youngsters, revising their content and creating new approaches.

Inspired by El Sistema, other Latin American countries run programs offering music education and instrumental training to children in situations of social vulnerability. Some of them are supported by government policies and others by private money. All of them aim to develop musical group experiences in the belief that participating in musical groups, such as orchestras and choirs, will contribute to positive social behavior and develop an awareness of the civil role of each individual.

Here in the U.S., we are daunted by the enormous challenges facing American orchestras, but we must remember to look to South America to feel the warmth and optimism growing exponentially through classical music.

In Baltimore, we are not immune to the effects of the U.S. economic slowdown, but we have managed to embrace our southern neighbors' philosophical and practical approach through our ORCHKids program.

We started with 30 kids four years ago, and today nearly 600 kids from four schools are participating. My dream is to reach every child. They are amazing children — tomorrow's leaders — and they, along with my amazing new life in Brazil, give me hope that my utopian dream of a passionate and positive society may one day come true.

(Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the principal conductor of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, which she led Sunday in a seaside concert for 20,000 people.)

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