José Antonio Abreu Anselmi (born May 7, 1939) is a Venezuelan orchestra conductor, pianist, economist, educator, activist, and politician best known for his association with El Sistema. He is Catholic. He was honored with the 2009 Latin Grammy Trustees Award, an honor given to personalities that have contributed to music by the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
Born in the city of Valera, Abreu graduated ¨Summa Cum Laude¨ as an Economist at Universidad Católica Andres Bello and he was awarded a PhD degree in Petroleum Economics from the same university in 1961. Abreu also did some graduate work at the University of Michigan. He served as a Deputy at the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress of Venezuela (1959-1964). After his political career, he also worked as a professor of economics and law at Universidad Simón Bolívar and his Alma Mater. He would return to politics in 1983 to serve as Minister of Culture and president of the National Council of Culture. Abreu even served as president of the Economic Planning Commission but a combination of disillusionment and health problems made him leave politics and "devote myself entirely to music".
Abreu began to study music with Doralisa Jiménez de Medina in Barquisimeto. Later, he attended the Caracas Musical Declamation Academy in 1957, where he studied piano with Moisés Moleiro, organ and harpsichord with Evencio Castellanos, and composition with Vicente Emilio Sojo. In 1967, he received the Symphonic Music National Prize for his musical ability. It was in 1975 that he founded El Sistema, formally known as the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela.
This was an innovative youth education method in which music was the primary avenue for social and intellectual improvement. He received the National Music Prize for this work at El Sistema in 1979. Under Abreu's guidance, El Sistema has participated in exchange and cooperation programmes with Canada, Spain, Latin American countries and the United States.
In 1993, El Sistema was awarded the famous IMC-UNESCO International Music Prize in the institution class. UNESCO also appointed Abreu as a Special Ambassador for the Development of a Global Network of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs in 1995 and as a special representative for the development of network of orchestras within the framework of UNESCO's "World Movement of Youth and Children Orchestras and Choirs". This project was created in the context of an inter-disciplinary project "Towards a Culture of Peace". He co-ordinates the programme through the UNESCO office in Caracas. He was also designated a Goodwill Ambassador by UNESCO in 1998.
In 2001, Abreu was honoured with a Right Livelihood Award and was honored with the World Culture Open Creative Arts Award in 2004. Among his numerous awards are the Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon (Japan, 2007), the Glenn Gould Prize (Canada, 2008), the Puccini International Prize (Italy, 2008), the Q Prize with former student and protégé Gustavo Dudamel (USA, 2008) and honorary memberships at the Royal Philharmonic Society (2008, United Kingdom) and the Beethoven-Haus Society (Germany, 2008). Abreu is also co-founder and vice-chairman of YOA Orchestra of the Americas.
When the B'nai B'rith Venezuelan brand gave Abreu their B'nai B'rith Human Rights Award in 2008, Abreu succinctly summarized the goal of El Sistema and of his life's work by saying, "In the struggle for Human Rights, let us vigorously incorporate children's sublime right to music, in whose bosom shines Beingness in its splendor and its ineffable mystery. Let us reveal to our children the beauty of music and music shall reveal to our children the beauty of life.".
In 2008 received as director of El Sistema the Prince of Asturias Awards for arts. In 2009, Abreu received the Crystal Award of the World Economic Forum and the TED Prize, which consists of 100,000 dollars and one wish to change the world. The description for his awards is a clear description of the work he does at El Sistema as it reads, "the maestro who's transformed the lives of tens of thousands of kids... through classical music".
On May 12, 2009, Abreu was awarded the Polar Music Prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Abreu and Peter Gabriel, who also won, were presented with their awards by King Carl XVI Gustaf at a gala ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall on 31 August. The Royal Swedish Academy of Music said about Abreu:
The Polar Music Prize 2009 is awarded the Venezuelan conductor, composer and economist José Antonio Abreu. Driven by a vision that the world of classical music can help improve the lives of Venezuela’s children, he created the music network El Sistema, which has given hundreds of thousands the tools to leave poverty. José Antonio Abreu’s successful creation has promoted traditional values, like respect, fellowship and humanity. His achievement shows us what is possible when music is made the common ground and thereby part of people’s everyday lives. Simultaneously, a new hope for the future has been given children and parents, as well as politicians. The vision of José Antonio Abreu serves as a model to us all.
In 2010, Abreu was awarded Erasmus Prize. In 2012, Abreu was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Institute of Education, University of London in recognition of his services to music education and social change.
In 2012, Abreu was awarded a Honorary Degree from Carleton University for his “outstanding contribution to the advancement of underprivileged youth through music and education”. He was awarded this degree, via video, on March 29, 2012 at Carleton University. The renowned Venezuelan Simón Bolívar String Quartet performed in honour of Dr. Abreu. They were joined by the OrKidstra Quintet. OrKidstra is Ottawa's very own El Sistema program.