[Viewpoint]The power of musicIt was a rainy Monday evening last week, and I headed for the Yong Theater at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul. I had planned the day weeks in advance to make sure I could attend a concert by the Busan Boys Town Orchestra. Around this time last year, I listened to the orchestra performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and was greatly moved by the voices of boys who have had their own taste of fate’s medicine. I was so impressed by their music that I wrote a column titled, “The Most Beautiful Concert in the World” for the Aug. 25, 2007 issue of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The 24-year-old Chung Min, son of Maestro Chung Myung-whun, conducted the orchestra, and thanks to his efforts and devotion with the boys, the sound was much more mature than the year before. Each singer comes from an underprivileged background and grew up without parents, but the harmony created by these young musicians was truly touching.
Gustavo Dudamel’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela performed at the Festival Hall in Salzburg, Austria on August 29. The much anticipated concert was sold out as soon as the tickets were released and was considered the highlight of the Salzburg Music Festival this year. Gustavo Dudamel, who conducted the orchestra for the concert, is 27 years old. However, the Venezuelan conductor has long been designated to become the new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has emerged as one of the top orchestras in the world.
Mr. Dudamel studied music with El Sistema, the Venezuelan music education program for children from low-income families. In 1975, amateur organist and conductor Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu started the program by giving musical instruments to 11 students in his garage to save the lives of the poverty-ridden youth who were exposed to drugs and crime. Celebrated musicians such as Lorin Mazel and Simon Rattle helped out as volunteers and the Venezuelan government actively supported the program by offering $29 million a year. Now, 250,000 children and young adults ranging from age 4 to age 20 receive an average of four hours of musical education every day. Most of the youth come from slums, and a considerable number are serving time in juvenile detention centers. This is how the history of El Sistema began. Sir Simon Rattle, the principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, calls El Sistema “a miracle and the future of music.”
Korean conductor Kwak Seung has been involved with El Sistema for over 10 years. Maestro Kwak says that musical education should not only be for children from rich families, and when he goes to Venezuela to work for El Sistema, he himself is refreshed with passion and love for music.
There is a similar program in Korea. Konkuk University operates the Konkuk Music Academy for Talented Youth, a program to educate children from low-income families who have outstanding musical talent. This summer, over 60 children enjoyed the benefit of the academy through the intensive program this summer. The children who could not afford to receive proper music lessons because of their financial situations were able to dream of being the next Mozart or future Beethoven. However, this program’s purpose is not just to educate master musicians. The program is worthy as long as the children growing up in less-privileged environments are given hope for the future as they play instruments.
Theirs do not have to be fancy or expensive instruments. Even if it is an old, secondhand trumpet, it should be put in the hands of the underprivileged youth.
We need to establish a Korean version of El Sistema to give children who are estranged and neglected by their families, schools and society a chance to stand tall through the power of music. We need to give them wings so that they can fly after their dreams. The government needs to take initiative, and companies should contribute as well. Musicians should lower themselves and be a part of the efforts. Music has the power to move you emotionally. And it has the power to educate and make good men. After all, our future depends on our people. The Korean version of El Sistema will enrich our future.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Chung Jin-hong