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Longy to start an El Sistema program with Bard College

Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a leader in the El Sistema philosophy. Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a leader in the El Sistema philosophy. (Bloomberg News/File 2008)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / October 5, 2011

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The Longy School of Music, a longtime community music school, is linking itself to one of the hottest trends in music education, the Venezuelan-based El Sistema philosophy of empowering students and transforming communities through music. The move has created tension with the New England Conservatory, which only two years ago launched its own program inspired by El Sistema.

The Longy program, a collaboration with New York’s Bard College and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will be called “Take a Stand’’ and include offering an accredited master’s of teaching music program in Los Angeles and on the Cambridge campus, now called Longy School of Music of Bard College.

The $1 million program, whose cost is being split between the orchestra and the schools, kicks off with a conference in Los Angeles in January and will start training teachers in June. Longy, which became a part of Bard this year, will enroll 30 students to create what they hope will be a pipeline of El Sistema-trained instructors.

Take a Stand will not have any formal connection to NEC, which continues to train 10 students each year as Abreu fellows, named for El Sistema founder Jose Antonio Abreu, to run El Sistema-inspired programs from Alaska to Brighton.

NEC president Tony Woodcock did not respond to requests for an interview yesterday, but the conservatory did release a two-paragraph statement on Take a Stand, noting “there is room and opportunity for everyone who is dedicated to the social development of children through the study of music.’’ The statement also noted differences between NEC’s initiative and Take a Stand including that, unlike its fellowship, Take a Stand will not be free.

“What’s more, the Abreu Fellows program, which not only trains students as leaders but how to be teachers in the El Sistema model, offers its participants a six-week residency in Venezuela observing and working at the source,’’ said the statement. “NEC’s Abreu Fellows program was similarly blessed by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu who asked NEC to develop it as his TED Wish to Change the World.’’

But Longy president Karen Zorn pointed out other differences. “We’re giving a degree in teaching music, which is different than a fellowship,’’ she said. “And they’ll be able to be credentialed in 48 states. Yes, we charge tuition but we also give significant scholarships in all of our programs.’’

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said that negativity surrounding some of the NEC program had played a role in the organizers deciding not to include them in Take a Stand.

“We’re trying to be collaborative and what they’re trying to do is a make a negative statement about why their program is better,’’ said Borda, of the NEC response. “It’s just sort of sad they feel they should do that. There’s plenty of room for everybody to work together.’’

Take a Stand also will not include Mark Churchill, the former NEC dean who owns the trademark to the organization El Sistema USA after a dispute with the conservatory about the program’s future.

There were discussions between Churchill, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Longy, and Bard. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a mutual friend of Bard president Leon Botstein and Churchill, suggested a potential partnership.

In the end, a deal couldn’t be worked out, though Churchill said he “was willing to transfer the trademark and the momentum and the brand. As I understand it, they decided that taking on the role of a national center was not feasible for them at this time.’’

Botstein said he doesn’t think the trademark is crucial.

“And I don’t want to be tied down by having a franchise as if we’re McDonald’s,’’ he added. “I would rather have a collaborative effort with the people from Venezuela. In that, you learn from them but you don’t have to imitate them.’’

The news of Take a Stand comes only two years after NEC launched its program, at the time positioning itself as a national base for the program that, in Venezuela, has given millions of children free lessons and instruments. Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the most famous product of that program.

Abreu will serve as an honorary advisor to Take a Stand. Rodrigo Guerrero, an official of El Sistema based in Venezuela, confirmed last week that the music educator has asked NEC to change the name of its fellowship. He said it is not because he is unhappy with the program but out of modesty.

Longy, founded in 1915, has long been in the shadow of NEC, the Berklee College of Music, and the Boston Conservatory. When Zorn took over in 2007, Longy was struggling with a nearly $1 million deficit. After making cuts - and reaching an agreement with the school’s faculty members - Zorn entered a deal with Botstein to make Longy a part of Bard. Longy still does offer conservatory training and instruction to children and amateur musicians in the community.

“They are reinventing themselves, reimagining themselves,’’ said Borda.

Along with its New York campus, Bard runs satellite high schools in New York, New Jersey, and Northern California. Now, it will be part of the program based in Los Angeles and Cambridge.

Interestingly, Take a Stand will work with several Abreu fellows who, after completing the program at NEC, launched or took over educational missions, or “nucleos.’’ These will include David Malek and Rebecca Levi, who started an El Sistema program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton.

Take a Stand began after Zorn approached Borda this year.

“I thought our organizations had similar goals but that we did different things, we had different areas of expertise,’’ said Zorn. “We train musicians. Then there’s the LA Phil, a symphony orchestra which knows how to bring people together and knows how to produce things. And it has Dudamel, the leader in this country and perhaps in this world of this whole movement. We have a shared goal, which is bringing music to kids who would otherwise not have access to it.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at