Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in London in September 2012. (Chris Christodoulou, London 2012 Festival / February 19, 2014)

Wherever he goes, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel is hailed as a symbol of El Sistema, Venezuela's model music education program. But Tuesday Dudamel arrived in L.A. as the subject of criticism for not speaking out against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's policies.

Just off the plane from Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and sitting in his office at Walt Disney Concert Hall with an espresso and poring over a Wagner opera score, Dudamel gave his first interview about his situation at home.

Anti-government demonstrations on Feb. 12 erupted into violence and three people were killed in Caracas while Dudamel was reported to have been celebrating National Youth Day at a presidential parade with Maduro in Maracay, about 80 miles from the Venezuelan capital.

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"That's crazy," Dudamel said, disputing a news report that he was with the president or in Maracay.

That day also marked the 39th anniversary of the founding of El Sistema, and Dudamel led a concert in Caracas with a youth orchestra from his hometown of Barquisimeto.

It was a special occasion for several reasons, he said. This was the orchestra in which he grew up playing violin, the first orchestra he conducted at age 12.

"All these young people," Dudamel enthused, "I felt like I was still one of them. All my teachers from Barquisimeto were there. José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, was there, and so was Frank Gehry."

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The architect had come to Venezuela to work on the design of a concert hall complex in Barquisimeto being built for those very kids and in tribute to Dudamel.

The joyful scene in the concert hall, however, was in great contrast to the nearby streets where the demonstrations and violence took place.

"I knew that there was to be a demonstration," Dudamel said, "but I was rehearsing all day, and I didn't know anything about the violence."

An open letter to Dudamel posted on the Facebook page of the popular Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero the day after the violence in Caracas insisted that he could not keep quiet any longer about a government accused of oppression and blamed for a variety of economic and social problems. Montero is an old friend of Dudamel's. 

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Dudamel, however, rejects calls to make a political statement, saying it would not be in the spirit of El Sistema, a foundation of the government serving more than 500,000 school children and probably its most popular program.

It is not a political institution, Dudamel said. It belongs to no one party or group but the entire citizenry, and he said he will do everything in his power to keep it out of politics.

Although he said he was unaware that the demonstrations in Caracas had turned violent, security is always an issue in Venezuela. When Dudamel learned that 600 young people had been lined up for hours waiting in a dodgy neighborhood for the 6 p.m. concert to begin, "I said bring them inside. It is safer."

The concert then went on without incident. Gehry said by phone Tuesday that he had never seen anything quite like it. 

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"The standing ovation for Abreu went on for over 10 minutes," Gehry said. "The audience clapped and howled and wouldn't stop. It was all about the kids and had nothing to do with politics, which is why everybody in the world is trying to copy Sistema. I was there simply because I believe in this model."