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Musical group earns award

Aubrey Butts | Monday, January 28, 2013

Art changes lives.

The success of Venezuelan conductor Jose Antonio Abreu and his children’s musical group El Sistema in demonstrating this principle has earned him this year’s Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Founded 37 years ago, El Sistema’s nationwide network of orchestras and education centers within Venezuela provides children with the self-esteem and character needed to break out of the cycle of poverty, according to a press release from the Kellogg Institute. Although he emerged from University with an economics degree, Abreu stated in the release his artistic interests and national concerns inspired him to develop the organization, an alternative means for rescuing his community.

In the release, Abreau cited music’s unique capacity for uniting unstable, struggling communities.

“Music is an agent of social development in the highest sense, because it transmits the highest values – solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion. It has the ability to unite an entire community,” Abreu stated in the press prelease.

Steve Reifenberg, Executive Director of the Kellogg Institute, said Abreu’s unique approach to social stabilization was a significant reason for recognizing his contributions in Venezuela.

“It’s really a movement that’s making its way across the globe. I teach international development, so these types of stories, where someone approaches development from a different angle rather than economic or educational development, stand out as truly transformative,” Reifenberg said. “I think it’s such an absolutely inspiring and compelling project.”

The Kellogg Institute said El Sistema has benefited individual participants in the program and the greater Venezuelan society, a fact demonstrated by the ongoing support of eight successive governments. Currently, 300,000 children across the country currently participate in Abreu’s arts education programs, and his model has spread to 25 other nations.

While the Kellogg Institute’s annual award has typically recognized distinguished individuals serving Latin America through political, economic, educational or religious actions, Reifenberg said Abreu’s unique approach deserves recognition.

“We hope that even more people will learn about Maestro Abreu and his project by giving him the award,” Reifenberg said.

Every year, the Institute solicits hundreds of people for nominations, ultimately narrowing the group to 40 or 50 individuals, Reifenberg said.

“I think if you look at the past recipients, it’s a really remarkable group of people,” Reifenberg said.

The award consists of a $15,000 cash prize and a matching amount donated to a charitable organization recommended by the winner. It is funded by a grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Rodrigo Calderon, Kellogg Advisory Board member and president of the Coca-Cola Foundation Mexico stated in the press release that the award is a great honor.

“The Notre Dame Prize for Distinguished Public Service in Latin America is recognized as the most prestigious prize in its category,” Calderon stated. “The University of Notre Dame is to be commended for leading this effort which is both a distinction for these outstanding individuals and an inspiration for the younger generation.

Reifenberg said Maestro Abreu will officially receive the award this upcoming spring at a ceremony in Caracas, Venezuela, during which one of the El Sistema youth orchestras will perform.