THAT underground car park in Caracas was like any other: dim, low-pitched, musty with damp. The acoustics were going to be dreadful, like an echo chamber. But as he waited there one afternoon in 1975, José Abreu was excited. He had been given 50 music stands, one for every two of the hundred children he expected, and already these resembled a skeleton orchestra, set out in rows. So he waited. And, eventually, 11 boys straggled in.

Another man might have given up then and there. But he had a vision that possessed him, and it was not just to teach music. He intended to transform society, first in Venezuela and perhaps, with God’s grace, worldwide. So he did not send the boys home, but told them he was going to turn them into one of the best orchestras in the world. His first lesson was tocar y luchar, play and struggle. He would multiply these boys until, at the last count, at least 700,000 children were enrolled in 440 núcleos, centres for choirs or orchestras, in Venezuela; the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of his best players was acclaimed all over Europe and America; and his method had spread there too, far beyond his country.

It acquired the name El Sistema although it was not, he emphasised, a system. It was a social project, almost a religious one, whereby through hard work and collaboration he would raise up Venezuela’s young, especially the deprived young, to their full potential of body, mind and spirit. Out in los ranchos, the sprawling shanty-towns of tin-roofed shacks and stinking drains, a boy would lift his bow across violin strings while his father hammered at his workbench, or a little girl would practise her clarinet as her mother folded clothes. A child who did this was no longer poor, but noble, and would instil pride too in his parents. Inspired adolescents would no longer smoke cannabis on street corners, or fall into prostitution. Rescued themselves, they would gradually save their communities from crime and their country from its chronic disorder.

He stressed the word “social” in his plans, as a trained economist whose studies, rather than his life, had introduced him to desperate poverty. (His childhood in an Andean town had been hard, but not like that; there was a piano in the house, and a family history of music-making in Italy.) “Social” also expressed the first purpose of El Sistema, playing together, rather than having music theory drilled into young heads. Its funding, in fact, came through social services, not the cultural department.

“Socialist” he did not say, though his language often strayed that way. Music was not a monopoly of elites. It was an inalienable right of the masses, as was beauty. Surely Beethoven, that profoundly democratic humanist, would be outraged to see it now, an exclusive and privileged thing, while the weak cried out for it.

The Chávez problem

It would have pleased Maestro Abreu to keep El Sistema out of politics, but that proved impossible. His founding motivation was part-patriotic anyway: he wanted Venezuela to have a classical-music culture as good as Mexico’s or Argentina’s. His principal orchestra was named after the great regional liberator and its child-players shone in the national colours, red, yellow and blue. For a few years, in the social-democratic period later mocked by Hugo Chávez, he was a congressman and culture minister; he knew the ropes. Nine successive governments funded him, none more generously than that of Chávez, so to keep the orchestra afloat he dared not cross him. But chavismo was not his creed. He believed in the emancipation, even perfectibility, of human beings through music.

That required exhausting discipline. The children rehearsed for four hours after school, 22 hours a week, playing until they were tired out, for this ideal. He drove them as he drove himself, convinced from that first session in the car park by the spark he had seen in their eyes. As more and more núcleos sprang up, he made sure his will was vehemently channelled through them. Tocar y luchar. When El Sistema produced a star in Gustavo Dudamel, now director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he took him firmly under his wing, even standing beside him, small, gaunt and ghostlike in coat and scarf, vestigially conducting while Mr Dudamel did. Some thought him more or less a tyrant, and questioned whether El Sistema had done any good, since weak players did not advance and Venezuela was falling even faster to pieces. But there was no doubt, in his mind or most others, that he had raised the aspirations and, with them, the prospects of thousands of young Venezuelans.

He was certain it would work, because it had worked on him. Once he knew, at nine, the joy of a piano, a musician was all he wanted to be. He had studied economics only because it fitted round his course in composition. For that he won prizes, producing a cantata on the Samaritan woman, an oratorio on the Apocalypse, and a wind quintet. His conducting was rigorous and reverent, searching the depths, always challenging his players. For what he wanted them to find was not only self-esteem and solidarity, but the sacred life within music which was Being, Truth and Goodness, God himself. This, the final transformation, was also why he had set up the music stands in that underground car park that day, and waited.