Traitor or not, Alcides Rodriguez is a product of the system

The ASO clarinetist praises el Sistema for giving him a life beyond Venezuela

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” — Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

Alcides Rodriguez arrives exactly on time — to the minute. Neatly attired in a solid soft-blue dress shirt and slacks, his stride exudes relaxed confidence. A 34-year-old bass clarinetist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2005, Rodriguez has instrument case in hand, ready for a rehearsal that begins in an hour and a half on the Symphony Hall stage.

His articulate voice is soft-spoken; its expressive virtuosity full of nuance. He talks about his work as a musician and his CD The Venezuelan Clarinet, which features sophisticated renditions of popular Venezuelan dances. Mostly he speaks about his amazing life journey, which led him from a simple childhood in a small Venezuelan town to a scarce career opportunity as a member of a major U.S. symphony orchestra.

Rodriguez was born in Guanare, Venezuela. His father was a truck driver and “by heart” musician who played a little guitar, accordion and cuatro, a Venezuelan traditional instrument. Young Alcides ultimately took up clarinet and enrolled in Guanare’s youth orchestra, under the auspices of el Sistema.

And though the government-funded el Sistema gave him the initial musical grounding that fueled his youthful dreams, he ultimately had to leave that nest, and his home country, to reach them.

El Sistema (“The System”) is Venezuela’s famed music education program comprised of hundreds of youth orchestras. It was founded in 1975 by retired economist and social reformer José Antonio Abreu, who, as the CBS news program “60 Minutes” reported in 2008, “built it with religious zeal, based on his unorthodox belief that what poor Venezuelan kids needed was classical music.” From instruments to lessons, everything is provided free by el Sistema. Well, almost everything.

Rodriguez’s parents did have to buy what is arguably the most essential and fragile part of the clarinet: the bamboo reed which creates the instrument’s sound and constantly requires replacement. “That was an ordeal at times,” says Rodriguez. It meant going to Caracas, seven hours away by bus. So one of the older kids in town would go and buy for everyone. “We would all chip in for the bus fare. He’d travel all night, buy the reeds, then come back. And there was no choice: You just get one out of the box, and that’s the reed you play. That reed would have to last at least a month and a half.”

But by age 15, Rodriguez already knew he wanted to leave Venezuela. At the end of his teens he came to the U.S. to study, even though he knew that what he wanted to achieve would never be put to use in his home country.

That’s because all that free musical training had a flip side.

“They pretty much tell you, ‘We give you everything you need here, why do you need to leave the country?’ So in some ways, if you go study somewhere else, that’s not good. They start looking at you almost like you are a traitor,” says Rodriguez. “I love Venezuela, I love my family and I love going back there to visit. But from the career standpoint, I can’t go back to a job there.”

Once he stepped onto the airplane in 1999 to come to the United States, Rodriguez left everything behind except his clarinet and a suitcase.

“I could not speak English at all. I just wanted to get my education and become a better musician,” says Rodriguez, who became an American citizen two years ago. “Where I am right now has exceeded my expectations. To be in the Atlanta Symphony, it’s like a privilege.”

Still, Rodriguez defends el Sistema against stereotypes that suggest most of the program’s benefactors are poor or homeless. While he had friends in the program who came from poor families, there were also children from middle class families, like himself, and well-to-do families. What el Sistema actually does, he says, is level the playing field. “It’s open to everybody, and everybody’s treated the same.”

“The System, I would say, has saved kids,” says Rodriguez. “It saved me in the sense that I love what I’m doing today. If I hadn’t studied music, I’d probably be in my hometown doing any other decent job, but it would not have been this. The System was an open door to another dimension, a different world that I probably could have never seen.”