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The System strikes a sour note
Thursday, January 13, 2011
The System strikes a sour note

Teaching method divides support for youth orchestra by Julia Wright

Things are upbeat at the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, according to president Ken MacLeod.

Since 2009, the NBYO has hired internationally-renowned Antonio Delgado as its first full-time conductor, earned the TD Canada Trust Award for Arts Organization of the Year, been invited to compete at an international Youth Orchestra competition in Vienna, and increased the yearly budget to $500,000. Kids across the province are also signing up for Sistema, the new NBYO-administered teaching program.

Things are upbeat at the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, according to president Ken MacLeod.

Since 2009, the NBYO has hired internationally-renowned Antonio Delgado as its first full-time conductor, earned the TD Canada Trust Award for Arts Organization of the Year, been invited to compete at an international Youth Orchestra competition in Vienna, and increased the yearly budget to $500,000. Kids across the province are also signing up for Sistema, the new NBYO-administered teaching program.

Compare that to as recently as 2002, when the institution was in major-key trouble. With a low profile in the community and a scant yearly budget of $25,000, Canada's first provincial youth orchestra was on the verge of folding.

So why, given the institution's recent successes, are some local orchestral music fans so angry?

One of the biggest innovations - and points of controversy - has been the introduction of El Sistema. Based on a Venezuelan model, the objective of 'The System' is to teach children who may have never picked up an instrument the basics of orchestral music. NBYO has already inaugurated one Sistema teaching centre in Moncton, and plans to open two more in Richibucto and Saint John in 2011.

"We first formed a partnership with School District 2 in September 2009," MacLeod explains. "We started with Grades 1-2 and had 180 applications... The results were astonishing. Most of these kids would never have had an opportunity to learn and play."

In the process of introducing the system, however, the orchestra has weathered the departure of veteran conductor Dr. James Mark, and imposed what some say are unilateral changes in its operations.

David Alexander, the parent of a long-time NBYO member, says while Sistema's mission might be valid, it is antithetical to the orchestra's former spirit.

"NBYO used to be a small organization that provided opportunities for kids who already knew how to play to hone their skills. That has completely changed," he says.

Violin instructor and flautist Helen Gollings concurs.

"Sistema is not 'another orchestra' - it's a group of young people learning to play music. Through the introduction of this program, the board has systematically alienated many of the fine adult musicians who used to support the NBYO. It's a cataclysmic event that has shaken the orchestra to the core."

Despite decades of involvement with the organization, she and her husband Bob McCausland will "no longer be putting any effort into promoting NBYO."

"I can't stress enough that we are not against Sistema - as a concept, it has great value. We are questioning the money that is being spent that was designated for NBYO. There are still questions that need to be answered."

MacLeod disagrees. In fact, the president explains, one of Philip W. Oland's founding precepts for NBYO was to teach children who wouldn't otherwise have been involved in classical music.

"We've turned the page, we've answered questions, and now our focus is looking at the future with enthusiasm and excitement," he explains.

As the health of the orchestra becomes more and more robust, he says, the 'dissenters' are increasingly in the minority.

Despite the lingering objections of some stakeholders, NBYO and Sistema will, of course, play on. The orchestra performs at 2pm on January 16 at Mount Allison's Convocation Hall.

Times & Transcript Article