Arts feature

Sex, lies and El Sistema

An explosive new book uncovers abuse at the heart of one of classical music’s most revered institutions. Damian Thompson finds it’s the tip of an iceberg

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

The two trendiest words in classical music are ‘El Sistema’. That’s the name for the high-intensity programme of instrumental coaching that turned kids from the slums of Venezuela into the thrilling Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO), conducted by hot young maestro Gustavo Dudamel before he was poached by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Or so the legend goes. When the SBYO was booked for the Proms in 2011, the concert sold out in three hours. Sir Simon Rattle, no less, declared El Sistema to be ‘the most important thing happening to classical music anywhere in the world’. Audiences wept at the sight of former street urchins producing a tumultuous, triumphant — and virtually note-perfect — performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. ‘If people cry two minutes into the concert, there’s nothing more to say,’ declared Rattle.

But it turns out that there is more to say, though it was last week before anyone spelled it out. The musicologist Geoff Baker has just written a heavily footnoted academic study of the Venezuelan ‘miracle’ entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Baker and his publishers, Oxford University Press, did not leak its contents in advance. El Sistema has powerful and very rich sponsors who might have blocked publication. But OUP’s lawyers crawled over every page. They had to.

Baker portrays El Sistema’s founder, the 75-year-old Jose Antonio Abreu, as a bully and political sycophant whose ‘system’ subjects children to brutal practising regimes that went out of fashion in the West decades ago. It’s more of a state-sponsored cult than a philanthropic marvel, says Baker.

Most disturbingly, he alleges that El Sistema permits the sort of sexual abuse of young musicians by their teachers that has recently come to light in British classical music circles — especially at Chetham’s school in Manchester. ‘Chet’s’, a co-ed specialist school that has produced some of this country’s finest musicians, has become synonymous with abuse. Its former choirmaster, Michael Brewer, was jailed for six years last year on five charges of indecent assault. His ex-wife, Kay, was also jailed for joining in the abuse.

Their accuser, Frances Andrade, claimed to have been assaulted by both of them when she was a violin student at Chetham’s in 1979 and 1980. Brewer dismissed her as a ‘fantasist’. Halfway through the trial she took a fatal overdose of prescription drugs. In September this year the conductor Nicholas Smith, another former Chetham’s teacher, was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old pupil. Two more individuals connected with Chetham’s have been charged, and there is also an ongoing matter in relation to one individual who resides outside of the UK.

Geoff Baker’s book specifically compares El Sistema to Chetham’s. He argues that both institutions have hidden classical music’s ‘dirty little secret’ — that the intimate, overwrought relationships between mentor and pupil encourage sexual abuse. One ex-Sistema musician describes the programme as a ‘chain of secrets and favours — like a secret society’. Baker writes: ‘She claimed that …young musicians regarded the trading of sexual favours as an unremarkable, even humorous, subculture within the orchestra. She mentioned so-called niños bonitos (pretty boys) appearing with brand-new, expensive instruments: “you think, there’s something more going on there than just talent”.’ A spokesman for El Sistema said last week that suggestions of widespread abuse were ‘absolutely false’.

Baker’s allegations feature prominently on the website of Ian Pace, head of performance at London’s City University and a virtuoso pianist specialising in the farthest reaches of the avant-garde. Pace is a campaigner against child sexual abuse — and conspiracies to hush it up. His Twitter account churns out allegations about paedophile sex rings in Westminster and the arts world. His enemies dismiss him as a left-wing crank, pointing to the ideological flavour of his campaigns against abuse-ridden hierarchies. Baker is also on the left: his exposé of El Sistema is a plea for progressive and experimental musical education. (The irony, he points out, is that Abreu’s liberal admirers think this is just what he has given Venezuela, whereas in fact he forces his pupils to worship the ‘elite’ classical canon.)

But Pace’s blog about sex abuse, Desiring Progress, is not the work of a crank. Its centrepiece is a petition for an inquiry into ‘sexual and other abuse at specialist music schools’. Signatories include Imogen Cooper, Peter Donohoe, Paul Lewis, Leon McCawley, Steven Osborne, Charles Owen, Martin Roscoe and Kathryn Stott — that is, most of Britain’s front-ranking pianists, plus the international virtuosos Andrei Gavrilov and Marc-André Hamelin. Other signatories include the oboist Nicholas Daniel, the cellist Steven Isserlis and the violinist Tasmin Little, all world-class soloists. The composer Michael Berkeley has signed: he’s now a peer and free to name names in the Lords without fear of libel action.

Pace, not coincidentally, was educated at Chet’s. ‘From very early in my time at Chetham’s I could tell something was wrong, creepy, unsettling about the place, the people and the culture,’ he says.

‘Many teachers were smarmy, arrogant, but charismatic and “artistic”. They’d fawn over certain pupils, not simply because of admiration for their musical achievements. Rather those pupils became objects of desire, groomed for purposes of delectation and titillation. With that came a type of premature sexualisation, in terms of the figures pupils were expected to cut on stage, and the need for them to communicate sexualised adult passions and desires through music. The ability to do this, to play this game, seemed to create a type of pecking order.’

According to Pace, this mindset permeates classical music. ‘When I have heard the ways in which various teachers, critics, those in charge of musical institutions, and others speak of many child or young performers, the thinking can itself be predatory.

‘People and their musicianship are summed up in terms of being a “bit of rough”, a “pussycat”, a “tease” and so on. One teacher openly berates one male student for not getting “fucked enough”, claiming that their artistry is limited for this reason.’ And some women teachers play this game, he adds: ‘One deeply insecure female teacher resented seeing her younger male students with girlfriends, and would surreptitiously intervene in their lives to try and wreck their relationships. And of course to criticise some teachers can be fatal in a world where careers are already deeply precarious.’

Sexual abuse in music schools is often an extension of other forms of abuse, says Pace — psychological, emotional and physical domination disguised by the mystique of the ‘artistic’. This rings true: substitute the word ‘spiritual’ for ‘artistic’ and you have at least a partial explanation for the epidemic of molestation in the Catholic Church. Tutors in music colleges are more than teachers: like clergy, they are called upon to exercise authority in an intimate setting. Pupils sometimes ascribe quasi-magical powers to them. It’s worth stressing that most teachers are not tempted to make sexual advances to their young charges; that most of those who experience temptation resist it; and that, as crimes are uncovered, blameless people face the terrifying prospect of made-up allegations.

All of which lends urgency to Pace’s demand for a thorough inquiry — and a restructuring of musical education to safeguard pupils. The signs are that classical music is about to suffer the convulsions experienced by the Church and BBC light entertainment. The past is being raked over. No one imagines that Benjamin Britten will emerge as the Jimmy Savile of high culture, but not everyone believes that his passion for prepubescent boys was weird but sublimated and therefore innocent, which is the contorted position of the Britten estate. What are we to make, for example, of the diaries of the notorious paedophile Peter Righton, which refer to Britten and Peter Pears as friends and ‘fellow boy-lovers’?

More significantly, the police have fat dossiers on current figures in the music world. Other suspected crimes have yet to be reported. ‘I am aware of allegations, some very serious and of a sexual nature, against prominent teachers working right now in various of the leading UK conservatoires,’ says Pace. In February this year, former Guildhall School teacher Philip Pickett — a hugely respected director of early music ensembles — was charged with eight counts of indecent assault, three counts of rape, two counts of false imprisonment, one count of assault and one count of attempted rape. Pickett’s trial has been postponed from October 2014 to January 2015 so that he could finish touring — a ruling that Pace describes as ‘quite incredible’.

We must, of course, presume Pickett’s innocence, but his trial will certainly focus attention on charges of abuse at British music schools and beyond. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how institutions such as the Southbank Centre that have championed El Sistema — and Sistema Scotland and Sistema England which are modelled on the SBYO — react to Baker’s meticulously researched book. There is a lot of money worldwide invested in this brand — enough to withstand most allegations. But, as the Catholic Church has discovered, the exposure of child abuse changes everything.

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  • grammarschoolman

    ‘he forces his pupils to worship the ‘elite’ classical canon’

    This hatred of music on the part of the Left is the real agenda here. In writing this article, you have only promoted it and fertilised it.

    Well done, Damian. A complete betrayal of the music you claim to love.

    • Jonathan West

      How do you get to that conclusion? Are you trying to suggest that sexual abuse of music school pupils should not be brought to light so long as the “elite classical canon” continues to be taught?

      • grammarschoolman

        The Left will do anything to destroy the high arts, because they single-handedly destroy their vicious and specious argument that everyone is equal and nobody is inherently better than anyone else.

        They have tried many means to do this: attacking music schools and music colleges is just their latest strategy. Their crocodile tears about music education – meaning the right of talentless nobodies to bash meaninglessly on the drums – are just a smokescreen to hide their real agenda.

        I had thought that Mr Thompson was too sensible to be taken in by this; now that I have been proved wrong, I hope that he will not write any more hypocritical articles about piano music.

        • Jonathan West

          So you are unconcerned about child sexual abuse in music schools. You have what you consider to be far more important priorities. Thank you for confirming that.

          I’m sure people will take note of your priorities and accordingly decide what weight to give to your opinions.

          • grammarschoolman

            And you evidently care nothing for music. That’s far more important.

          • Jonathan West

            I’m taking part in a performance of the Eroica symphony on Saturday night. Would you care to come along?

          • grammarschoolman

            Another useful idiot for the Left. I hope Beethoven is pleased for you.

          • Lowry

            Give it a rest. Sorry nobody comments on your blogs anymore.

          • grammarschoolman

            I don’t suppose they do. I’ve never written a blog.

          • Lowry

            Hello Jonathan. Loved your lunchtime concert at the Bridgewater Hall on Monday.
            When you come to Stockport in the New Year will you play the Levebre-Wely piece that got people coming to Mass.
            grammarschoolman doesn’t play an instrument and claims to like Satie.

          • grammarschoolman

            Actually, I do play an instrument, I find Satie a very interesting composer (just like many others) and I know enough about music to be able to spell Lefebure-Wely.

        • ‘nobody is inherently better than anyone else’ – indeed they are not. To think otherwise is the first step towards dehumanising members of the ‘anyone else’ such as appears to legitimise abusing them.

          • grammarschoolman

            Dear God. Everyone has a different value, determined by their level of talent. Thinking otherwise leads to the only real form of abuse – the denial of the best teaching to those with the greatest ability. I hope you’re not involved in education in any form.

          • Yes, I am involved in education (at tertiary level) and yes, *all* my students are equally valuable, and all deserve the best teaching.

      • george

        yes they are in a position of power,but still you cant confuse all sexual encounters with abuse!

    • RuariJM

      Do you really believe this or are you being satirical or something?

    • HelpVenezuelaWeAreDying

      Geoff Baker’s book, which I have read, addresses – inter alia – the morally untenable situation in which El Sistema now finds itself.

      Setting aside left and right agendas – I have neither – El Sistema, in its Chavez-era incarnation, has become a wing of the Venezuelan government: its propaganda wing, to be precise. This is beyond dispute.

      The narco-kleptocracy masquerading as a democratic government is the world’s 14th most corrupt (tied with Yemen), according to Transparency International’s latest data; it has overseen the total social and economic collapse of the country; it has presided over an escalation of violence that now ranks it 2nd in the world for murder; it is also a sworn enemy of European imperialism and colonialism, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, the intellectual elite and all things jewish. Indeed, its very concept of “Revolution” is predicated upon defeating those perceived forces.

      Yet, that same mafia funds Venezuela’s young musicians, at huge cost, to travel to those imperial heartlands, to play the European music of the supposedly despised imperial and intellectual (and often jewish) elite in the world’s grandest concert halls, while literally wearing the government’s new 8-starred “revolutionary” flag across their chests.

      As they pass through these great cities, upholding their musical heritage by playing the music OF those cities in emotionally compelling concerts, El Sistema’s leaders go one step further on the propaganda campaign, partaking in consular symposia glorifying El Sistema as the embodiment of the revolution’s success. With little sense of irony, the country with the world’s highest rate of inflation and 2nd highest murder rate employs its fresh-faced musicians to export its moribund communist ideology to the world’s leading economies, using their host’s music to do so. Try to imagine Khrushchev funding a Soviet youth orchestra to play Gershwin in Carnegie Hall.

      Furthermore, these highly lucrative tours are managed in the capital markets by the London-based agency Askonas Holt, which also powerfully represents some of its next-generation “conductors”, young men like Diego Matheuz who, with no track-record, are leapfrogged in their twenties into elite positions, like principal conductor of the renowned La Fenice opera house. (How and why does a twenty-something Venezuelan with almost no experience or knowledge of opera land such a position in the traditional heart of Italian opera?)

      And finally, El Sistema’s Simon Bolivar orchestra provides cheap, outsourced, non-union recording and PR solutions for Deutsche Grammophon, the once cherished industry standard bearer now owned by the multi-national Universal Music. DG even distributed the soundtrack to the film score of “The Liberator” – a current biopic on the life of Simon Bolivar, namesake of the current Venezuelan “Revolution” and the orchestra that recorded it – composed, supposedly, by none other than Gustavo Dudamel.

      So, Baker’s interest in El Sistema’s obsession with the “elite musical canon” has everything to do with how it hypocritically serves a well-oiled, well-funded Venezuelan government propaganda machine in a now global arrangement of mutual back-scratching, and little to do with any leftist desire by the author to destroy high art.

    • Nhat-Viet Phi

      I really don’t see what the hell the Right or the Left have to do with music or supposed sexual abuse. My observations in the performing arts worldwide are that music usually transcends typical political boundaries. The flipside is that both Right and Left can take stances for and against the arts.

      And frankly this article feels like aimless shit-stirring.

  • Mr Grumpy

    “We must, of course, presume Pickett’s innocence”

    Yes we must, and therefore you should have resisted the temptation to mention him.
    Dragging his name into the company of those of convicted abusers invites us to make the opposite presumption.

  • One thing just to point here – Michael Brewer was a choirmaster at Chetham’s, but more importantly he was the Director of Music, the most powerful musician in the school (and second in seniority only to the Headmaster) and in this capacity played an important role in all pupils’ musical life at the school. In this case the abuser operated at the very highest level, and was more than just one of many members of staff. See .

  • thomasaikenhead

    “…the sort of sexual abuse of young musicians by their teachers that has recently come to light in British classical music circles — especially at Chetham’s school in Manchester. ”

    How fascinating that mention is made of Chetham’s and Guildhall and yet NOTHING is mentioned whatsoever about the allegations involving the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey.

    Why would that be Damian?

    • No arrests or charges have been brought against any teachers at the Menuhin School, to date, except for their former violin teacher Wen Zhou Li, who taught there from 1988 to 1996, then went to teach at Chetham’s, during which period the events in question are alleged to have taken place. But there have been powerful testimonies to terrible and pervasive abuse especially in the early days of the Menuhin School. See


      • thomasaikenhead

        Ian Pace,

        Thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment.

        I remain puzzled that given the circumstances and testimonies related to alleged abuse at the Yehudi Menuhin school, that a well-informed journalist like Damian Thompson fails to make any mention of it whatsoever in an article of this nature?

        Why do Damian Thompson and other journalists continue to remain silent about the events at the Yehudi Menuhin school?

  • rtj1211

    The reality of music is that it provides some young people, seriously emotionally starved, either consolation, the ability to hang on in spiritually disastrous circumstances or a community where they can at least in some way become accepted. Of course, it also provides joy for many well grounded emotionally healthy children too.

    It is the former group who will be most susceptible to predators. They have blocked out many of their self-defence instincts, because pain needs to be anaesthetised. They may not know what a loving adult-child relationship means (i.e. non-sexual, but emotionally warm, nurturing and developmental in nature) and hence will not realise what is going on until it is too late.

    This is nothing unique to music. The same can be said of many other specialist niches, be that sport, be that religion, be that science, be that acting/film starring etc etc.

    What is always dangerous is assuming that young people who are very advanced in very unique niches have similar acceleration of development in all the rest of life.

    Usually, they do not.

    I must say that this targeting of Venezuela is part of an organised targeting of all those who oppose America.

    I truly hope that similar things don’t take place in any part of the USA, because I for one want to hear about all the venality in the USA, which I am 100% convinced will be just as prevalent as it is in parts of the world that the ‘right wing establishment’ lives to hate……..

  • george

    Ever care to imagine,that some of these sexual encounters were consensual!
    but that doesn’t fit the narrative of the author.Everything is “abuse” until they reach
    that magical age of 16! also “grooming”

    • There is a very good reason for the term ‘age of consent’. And ‘grooming’ of underage children is a very serious problem indeed.

      • george

        its a problem cos society makes it so!

    • Hamish Redux

      There’s a lot to be said for the idea that 16 is too young an age of consent, especially for homosexual abuse. The “saintly” Alan Turing actually seduced a teenager who was under age at the time (19) although this fact is carefully ignored by his fans.

      • george

        If its made higher,more people will be locked up for consensual activity!

  • Minnie the Sooh

    As a professional musician, educated at a leading British Conservatoire, I have always been suspicious of the claims of the near miraculous achievements of “La Sistema and sceptical of the attempts to re-create the Sistema here. Anyone who teaches music knows that the ONLY way to achieve true excellence is through hours and hours of practice. There is no magic formula. So how do you get hundreds of very poor, deprived children to do this? SOME may do it out of sheer love of music, but the rest? Adopting La Sistema in the UK is doomed to failure – children here have far too many distractions and are unlikely to put up with the kn=ind of bullying described by Baker in his book. Thank God.

    • George Anderson

      Raploch in Stirling is one of the most deprived communities in Scotland. It has had a Sistema-inspired orchestra since 2008. Nearly 500 children from babies to teens are now engaged in the programme. They all live within about a mile of each other and 18 of them are good enough to pass audition for the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland this year. The orchestra has just had a glowing report from Education Scotland for the high attendance it attracts and the excellence achieved by many of the children. There is no bullying. There are no distractions. It just works.

      • The_greyhound

        You’d have to be a credulous slackmouthed wee nat to believe that dumb nonsense.

        Oh dear.

  • Disqust

    “a restructuring of musical education to safeguard pupils.”
    As an ex music teacher in school, college and conservatoire, I’d like to know how anyone can restructure music education. It depends upon a very close, not to say intimate relationship between teacher and pupil. I worked for 30+ years without giving in to temptation with my students (female – I’ve never had any leanings towards being gay) and never knew any of my colleagues to do so with impropriety, although a few did marry students.
    As many commentators are saying, this seems to be part of left-wing propaganda against the ‘elitist’ arts.

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  • Hamish Redux

    There is a real problem with Benjamin Britten: one of the top 3 British composers of the last century (along with Elgar and VW) but undeniably a paederast. Don’t tell the Daily Mail I listen to his music: they seem to have decided that Messrs Glitter and Harris (not on my list of great artists) should be unpersons from now on.

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  • Houfous

    According to the Central Criminal Court on Wednesday 11th February Philip Pickett was found guilty and sentenced on the following counts:-

    Count 3 – Rape – 7 years imprisonment Concurrent to Count 6
    Count 5 – Sexual Assault on a Female – 2 Year Imprisonment Concurrent to Count 6
    Count 6 – Rape – 11 years Imprisonment
    Count 9 – Indecent Assault on a Female – 18 months imprisonment Concurrent to Count 6

  • Sue Smith

    I’m afraid this is very old news – it’s been around for ages. Despite all this, the Bolivar Orchestra is a stunning success and those people look very happy when they’re playing!!!

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