"This is quite simply the future of music," Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle famously exclaimed in 2004 after conducting a student orchestra in Venezuela. Gustavo Dudamel, whom Rattle made an assistant conductor in Berlin, has gone on to prove that. The national and international importance of the country's music education program, El Sistema, has also proven that.
This Venezuelan revolution is the music story thus far of the 21st century. But now Venezuela is in trouble. The price to save El Sistema may turn out to be high, politically and morally. The answers are not clear, and the country's two best-known classical musicians, pianist Gabriela Montero and Dudamel, once friends, are, as is much of the country, painfully divided on what to do.
Dudamel continues to work within the system for change. Montero calls for overthrow.
"Venezuela is terrifying," Montero told me recently over coffee. "It is destroyed."
As we overlooked the ocean, the 45-year-old pianist, who has been in exile for five years and now lives in Palos Verdes, described a Venezuela mired in crime and corruption. It has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. The economy is in shambles: Essential goods are scarce, and the inflation rate is expected to reach 200% this year. There are regular reports of human rights violations. Drug cartels have moved in.
The change has been dramatic. In 2008, Montero performed with violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Anthony McGill on a White House balcony as a prelude to Barack Obama being sworn into office. Earlier this year Obama declared Venezuela a national security threat to the U.S.
Appointed honorary consul of Amnesty International, Montero has become the most prominent and persuasive international voice for radical change in Venezuela. She describes what should be a thriving country — with immense oil reserves, home to some of the world's best chocolate and coffee, once a tourist destination for its glorious landscapes and alluring culture — as, instead, "deteriorating at rapid speed. It's a situation that has affected all Venezuelans. Every day I hear stories of kidnapping and murder."
I traveled to Caracas in 2012 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which was taking part in Dudamel's Mahler project. Venezuela's capital seemed a scary place with a wondrous spirit. The danger was such that the players couldn't step outside the hotel or concert hall without security. The official exchange rate was so ridiculously high that even fancy hotels were forced to work with the black market if they wanted to stay in business. The rich lived in armed fortresses to protect themselves from the poor.
Still, there was Sistema, an extraordinary music education system that was clearly the pride and soul of the nation. Here was a national social program reaching hundreds of thousands of kids and brightening otherwise grim prospects for the poor. As its most celebrated and proactive alumni, Dudamel had become one of his country's most beloved celebrities.
Bad as things were, Sistema promised a more prosperous future. Not only was it helping what it says is more than 500,000 children and their families get through tough times, but it was also meant to be a workshop for building a new generation of citizens perhaps capable of fixing a broken national system of government.
And there was even talk of hope. Hugo Chavez, the charismatic president who had led a proletarian revolution that helped many but also put the economy in shambles, was running for reelection, an election Chavez would win. But he died soon after, and under his successor, Nicolás Maduro, Montero believes, Venezuela has reached the tipping point.
"It is hard to fathom it could be any worse," she says. "People are dying of fever, of cancer, of AIDS, but the blood bank has no blood. The government cannot provide the basic needs of the citizen."
For Dudamel, El Sistema is one program that does, in fact, provide these basic needs of the citizen, contending that music remains an inexorable Venezuelan human right. And he has redoubled his efforts to bring the advantages of a safe, nurturing educational environment for disadvantaged children by recently traveling to some of his country's most distant and rural outposts to inspire students. His is a long-term goal of saving a politically divided country by building a new citizenry.
Montero insists that Venezuela cannot wait, so Sistema can no longer be the solution. Although never a member of the program, since it was for orchestra musicians and didn't have a piano program when she was young, she grew up playing piano concertos with the Sistema youth orchestras. She performed regularly with a teenage Dudamel, "when he had short curly hair and glasses," she recalls, with fondness. She expresses unconditional praise for him as a musician.
"But the music system, as beautiful as it is, and as important as it is in the development and spiritual growth of the child," she contends, is not going to change the country. "There is no quantitative measurement or evidence that Sistema has created social change."
Montero says that she doesn't want Sistema to end. "I know these kids; I know that a lot of people are benefiting from this relationship to music," she explains. "But I know the damage that using Sistema as a propaganda tool has done. People fall in love with the government because of Sistema. Imagine how dangerous that is."
For Montero, the only way to change is for everyone to speak out. An eloquent speaker, she now has through Amnesty International a powerful podium. On May 21 in Berlin, she and Patti Smith performed at the organization's tribute to Joan Baez and Ai Weiwei. She has also just released a recording of her Opus 1, "Ex Patria," a harrowing work for piano and orchestra that is a memoriam to Venezuela.
The disc, which also includes a rapturous performance of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, and three solo piano improvisations, is a collaboration with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas, a youth orchestra that Dudamel headed from 2003 to '10.
A year ago Montero wrote a letter to Dudamel asking him to stand up to the government. He didn't answer her. He takes no public political position. He told The Times then that he is an artist, not a politician. He called Sistema his family. With José Antonio Abreu, the political and musical genius behind Sistema and a father figure to Dudamel, now in failing health, whence goes Dudamel, goes Sistema and the well-being of hundreds of thousands students and their families.
Montero, however, is not swayed. "As far as Sistema is concerned, I said in my letter, yes, they are caring for this beautiful flower, but it's in a toxic oasis. The kids are not immune from life out there. They are not without the threat of being kidnapped, of being murdered."
In fact, this month two Sistema musicians, 13 and 15, were killed. One was caught in the middle of a gang shootout; the other was the victim of a robbery.
Where does this leave Dudamel? Without his active involvement — for which he devotes a substantial part of his career and takes no salary as music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony — Sistema would be far less valuable to the government. It probably wouldn't survive in anything like its current form were he to take sides. The suffering, the loss of life and promise could be catastrophic. The ripple effect would surely be felt in the many Sistemas Dudamel has inspired around the world, from YOLA and HOLA in Los Angeles, to programs in Scotland, Sweden and Japan.
During a symposium on Sistema last year when the Bolívars took part in Dudamel's Tchaikovsky Festival with the L.A. Phil, the conductor and Bard College President Leon Botstein addressed this question. Should doctors, he asked, walk out of state-supported hospitals in Venezuela in protest and leave patients to die however potent a form of protest that might be?
Montero's insistence on everyone, musicians and maybe even doctors, participating in change is credible and passionate and must be listened to. But if defeating the system is the only way to produce change, then shocking risks are essential. The examples of attempts at revolution in places like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Ukraine, which are not better off, is particularly worrisome, especially given that Venezuela's opposition is not unified and several of its leaders are in prison.
Dudamel's delicate political balancing act, with all its compromises, has produced phenomenal accomplishments, and they too need to be acknowledged. He is just as passionate and credible in his belief that this amazing plant that he nourishes can provide the seeds for Venezuelan rebirth and must survive.
Right now we need what both Montero and Dudamel bring to the table to get a complete picture. Together they reveal the scope of Venezuela's grave situation and what is at stake. Ultimately standing for the same thing, these former friends heroically expose the tragic failure of diplomacy both inside and outside Venezuela, which is where heroism is needed.