Did anyone really know José Antonio Abreu?

Did anyone really know José Antonio Abreu?


norman lebrecht

March 25, 2018

The founder of El Sistema, who died yesterday, studied at an American university and was reported by his official biography to be fluent in English, but when I tried to talk to him he insisted on an interpreter.

He seemed reluctant to say anything meaningful. Even his platitudes had been watered down to nothingness. After a while, I gave up and we shook hands.

His reticence, I was told by some in his circle, was rooted in a fear of his country’s increasingly odious regime, which he continued to support, and in a paramount need to protect his educational creation, El Sistema.

The only person who really knew him was Gustavo Dudamel, who acknowledged José Antonio Abreu as a surrogate father and for many years did nothing without his approval. When I asked Gustavo to describe Abreu’s special qualities, he said something like ‘well, you have to know him….’

A mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Abreu with strongman Maduro




  • Anonymous says:

    Well, apparently Dudamel did.

  • Kike says:

    José Antonio Abreu was very open with… the people he liked and were his friends. You weren’t one of them, Norman, so why would he want to have a meaningful conversation with you? You are a journalist, and Abreu was wise enough to know that a conversation with you was basically a press interview. In this world of over-sharing attention-obsessed people, I actually respect his attitude.

  • anon says:

    A myth wrapped in a fiction.

    • Anon says:

      His body of work and their results are anything but fiction.
      What will remain of you, once your candle is out?

  • Doug says:

    Let’s give communism another chance. What’s 150 million dead but a statistic? This time, I’ll get it right!

  • Anon says:

    Lots of people knew him. Some of them loved him, some of them hated him. He made careers (like Dudamel’s) and he destroyed others.

    In Venezuela, a lot of people know a lot about him – including about the skeletons in his closet. But most were too afraid of him to talk publicly: https://van-us.atavist.com/all-that-matters. It will be interesting to see whether any of them speak out now that he’s gone.

  • Anonimo says:

    You would have more credit for your words if you would even care to write his name right, it is José not Joe

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I met him at a Royal Philharmonic Society awards dinner a few years ago. He said he couldn’t speak a word of English so we spoke Spanish so I find it surprising that he went to an American university?

  • Ben says:

    Abreu spoke excellent English, but did not feel comfortable speaking English in interviews and with people he did not know well, which I find entirely natural.


    Someone who knew him well and spoke to him at length, in English.

  • Marc says:

    In June, 2008. Denver hosted a national arts conference, which I covered for the Rocky Mountain News. Among those attending was Mr. Abreu. I had a sit-down interview with him, and as I recall, he spoke decent English, and was quite open and enthusiastic about El Sistema (as was practically everyone in the music world back then). The positive impact that he made on Venezuela’s impoverished youth can’t be ignored, and should remain his legacy — rather than his fall from grace amid the political upheaval in that country.

    • The View from America says:

      You play with fire … you get burned.

      • Anon says:

        You watch too much US TV… you get stupid.

        • Burton says:

          Good point Anon. Maybe what we most need is more Russian style television to enrich our outlook and lift our overall intellectual level. Perhaps we then combine that with Chavez-Maduro style grace and practical wisdom and we’ve got the perfect answer to our current challenges. Now that’s the ticke sir!!

          • Susan joyce says:

            Dudamel advanced in spite of him! Abreu was a strange person. He blew with the political winds. That is not to say that El Sistema was not a success but he was a govt pawn when Chavez emerged

          • Anon says:

            With all due respect, you are an idiot, Sir!

  • Eduardo Cañizalez says:

    Well, I think he was “supporting” the regime just for convenience’s sake. I never saw him saying anything in public himself to show his approval to Maduro’s or Chavez government. He just appeared alongside them with a small smile.

    I think I could ignore his political tendencies since he really did much good to many people. We are proud of him, even those of us who are strongly againts the regime.

  • Student says:

    Most musicians in El Sistema knew him. I did, my parents did, my friend’s niece did, my father’s friends, my mom’s friends, my uncle, his friends. Mr. Abreu did what he had to do to keep El Sistema running and growing for more than 40 years. Thanks to his dedication, more than 50 countries are following his path. El Maestro will always be remembered by those that one way or another go their lives touched by him.

  • Colin Eatock says:

    I had a similar experience when I interviewed him: he spoke perfect English before and after the interview, but insisted on conducting the interview itself in Spanish, through an interpreter. I always suspected this had something to do with Venezuelan politics, and I didn’t fault him for it. Strange, though.

    • Robin Worth says:

      Not strange at all

      You can say things in Spanish which are subtle (like the use of negatives) but easily mistranslated or misunderstood by outsiders. If Abreu expected his words to be quoted or reproduced in, for instance, media at home it was reasonable for him to use his native language

  • Hernan says:

    Norman, you succeeded in turning Dudamel into a traitor biting the hand that fed him. He received a world class education paid for by the people of Venezuela, and you pushed him to betray his country. Venezuela was targeted for regime change because of its socialist politics and its sovereign attitude. You and the Hollywood crowd pushed him to betray his country and people. Dudamel is somewhat rudderless thanks to you and the Hollywood crowd who in the end corrupted Dudamel. Very sad.

  • Hernan says:

    For many who respected Dudamel, he is now a traitor. I am certain that the Abreu family will not want someone like Dudamel play in his funeral. Dudamel broke Maestro Abreu’s heart with his betrayal. Maybe Dudamel can play for Trump with fellow traitor Gabriela Montero.

    • The View from America says:


    • Saxon Broken says:

      Dudemal is Spanish, so how can he betray Venezuala?

      • Hernan says:

        Spain, the former colonial master and the current hegemon, United States, wants Venezuela to return to its historical position as a vassal state of the Imperialist “West”. The corrupted Dudamel plays the useful fool in this role.

      • Eduardo Cañizalez says:

        I don’t know what Dudamel from Spain you are talking about. But the one who is being adressed here is Gustavo Dudamel, the pupil of Maestro Abreu, and he, as well as his master, is Venezuelan.

        • HERNAN says:

          Gustavo Dudamel is now a Spanish citizen, but remains Venezuelan. None the less, he has lost the trust of the Venezuelan people. This is sad. He has no business in making comments that promoted and aided the enemy of the people of Venezuela, the United States. Huge mistake. Dudamel has become a “Hollywood elite”. Most sad.