José Antonio Abreu, the founder and creator of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and El Sistema music-education initiative, died on March 24 in Caracas. He was 78 and had been battling illness since retiring several years ago. Born on May 7, 1939, Abreu was trained as a musician and an economist. In 1975, he formed the first orchestra of what would become El Sistema, a teaching system through which the Venezuelan government supported free music education for the country’s children, most of them living in poverty. Over four decades, thousands of children went through the program, whose graduates include Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The teaching model has been replicated in Europe, South and North America, and elsewhere. El Sistema USA, which supports a nationwide alliance of El Sistema-inspired organizations in the United States, has invited all those with personal memories of Abreu to submit them to an online memorial.

Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, described Abreu as “an extraordinary musician and leader who revolutionized the orchestral field’s thinking on cultural equity and on the idea of access to the arts as a basic human right. Maestro Abreu showed us how the promise of the most vibrant orchestral experience lies in opening up the connections to our common humanity. Maestro Abreu’s El Sistema has modelled just how that works, and in doing so, he has been a gift to all of us in music—a true testament to the transformational power of orchestral music.”