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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
After the Montero letter was widely circulated, reports about the concerts and the demonstrations continued to dog Dudamel, who will lead the L.A. Phil's 11-day Tchaikovsky festival that begins Thursday. The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, one of the most spectacular products of Sistema, will be on hand.
So will Venezuelans opposed to the Maduro regime, who are planning a vigil in front of Disney Hall for the Bolívar concert Friday night.
"Everything I do is against violence and radicalism," Dudamel said. "I don't think I'm naive when I say that I think everybody wants the best for Venezuela and we have to build together.
"I have said this over and over and with many different words," Dudamel continued, "but we are creating in Sistema not only musicians but better citizens. We exchange instruments for guns. We teach tolerance and respect. Whatever you think, you have to work together to play in an orchestra. Whatever your differences are, you have to solve problems to make harmony. The best example there is of what a community can be is the orchestra."
He points to a country that has codified the value of music education. "Elsewhere in the world, music is a philanthropic enterprise," Dudamel said. "In Venezuela it is a right. Maestro Abreu got that written into the constitution, so it doesn't matter who is the president, this is something that represents the Venezuelan people. It serves as an example not of division but unity for the rest of the world."
Dudamel acknowledges that Venezuela has problems, but he also notes that he travels a lot and believes many of Venezuela's economic issues are global.
"Venezuela is a young country. It's like a teenager," with growing pains. First of all, he said, he would like to see violence stop.
Asked what it would take for him to speak out about the political situation in his country, Dudamel said, "I'm a musician. If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody.
"Maybe I stand for El Sistema, but El Sistema is not Gustavo Dudamel, it's all the children and that is my responsibility. And why would you want to divide something when you can make a union?" he said.