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El Sistema Founder José Antonio Abreu to Receive Honorary U-M Degree


Maestro José Antonio Abreu, the world-renowned pianist, educator and economist who founded and runs El Sistema, Venezuela’s celebrated national music education program, will receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree, pending Regental approval, at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony on April 28.

El Sistema, founded in 1975, has provided musical training to more than one million young Venezuelans who perform in a network of orchestras, choirs, and other musical organizations. Among its graduates is music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, who is also El Sistema’s music director.

Abreu founded the organization “for the purpose of systematizing music education and promoting the collective practice of music through symphony orchestras and chorus as a means of social organization and communitarian development.” The program has inspired similar organizations around the world, including El Sistema USA, a support and advocacy network for people and organizations inspired by the Venezuelan program.

Throughout Venezuela, El Sistema has established more than 200 centers, which admit children between the ages of 2 and 18, the majority from poverty-stricken areas.  They are assigned instruments and instructors at no cost.

Born in Valera, Venezuela, José Antonio Abreu studied piano, organ, and harpsichord, graduating from the national conservatory of music in Venezuela in 1957. He also earned two degrees from the Universidad Católica Andres Bello, an undergraduate degree in economics, and a doctorate in petroleum economics in 1961. In addition, he took some graduate courses at U-M.

Abreu pursued successful parallel careers in music and economics, earning the prestigious Symphonic Music National Prize of Venezuela in 1967, and serving on the faculty in economics and law at the Universidad Católica Andres Bello and the Universidad Simón Bolívar.

For his efforts, Abreu has been honored around the world, receiving the Glenn Gould Prize (Canada, 2008), the Puccini International Prize (Italy, 2008), and honorary memberships in the Royal Philharmonic Society (United Kingdom, 2008) and the Beethoven-Haus Society (Germany, 2008). In 2009 he was presented with the Polar Music Prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music for creating “a new hope for the future.” When he received a B’nai B’rith Human Rights Award in 2008, Abreu declared we should “reveal to our children the beauty of music, and music shall reveal to our children the beauty of life.”

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Photography Credits:

U-M Photo Services

Joe Welsh

Peter Smith

David Smith

Glen Behring

Tom Bower