“Tell me,” Lazarus asks during the Last Supper Passover Seder in John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” "why is this night different from all other nights?” The answer for Gustavo Dudamel on Thursday night, when he conducted the premiere of the revised Passion oratorio at Walt Disney Concert Hall, would not be the traditional one about commemorating Moses leading the Jews from Egypt.
Instead, on this momentous night, the young conductor would travel – physically, politically, spiritually and literally – from the world of César Chávez to that of Hugo Chávez.
Adams’ century-hopping Passion oratorio includes a scene in which César Chávez negotiates for the farm workers of California. And the instant after Dudamel took his curtain call at 10:15 p.m., after leading one of the most demanding and deeply moving performances of his career, the young Venezuelan conductor, who is a cultural hero in his homeland, was spirited to a plane to Caracas.
He made it just in time to conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in front of nearly two dozen heads of state at the funeral of Hugo Chavéz on Friday morning.
The political implications are complex but not that complex. The trip was arranged by El Sistema, the famed Venezuelan music education program, and Sistema’s policy has always been to remain apolitical. This has allowed Sistema to gain state support from whomever has been in power for the past two decades.
Like the leaders before him, Chavéz embraced Sistema. He placed the program under the executive branch of the government and funded it to the tune of $100 million a year.
That made the Simón Bolívar Symphony – which Dudamel grew up with when it was a youth band and of which he remains music director – a necessary part of national ceremonies. As polarized a country as Venezuela may be, the one thing nearly all Venezuelans share is their intense patriotism.
The orchestra’s appearance at the funeral of a leader who was a beloved figure to tens of millions of Venezuelans is no more extraordinary than the U.S. Marine Band performing at the behest of the current resident of the White House.
All that was extraordinary was Dudamel’s travel arrangements. After catching a red-eye to make Friday’s funeral, he plans to fly back to Los Angeles in time for Sunday’s final Disney Hall performance of “The Gospel According to the Other Mary.”
Dudamel himself has never spoken publicly about Chavéz. But as a national figure who wants the funding for Sistema to continue to flow, he clearly needed to contribute on Friday.
And there he was, fervently conducting the Venezuelan national anthem while the heads of state rose and many wept. Dudamel stood solemnly by Chavéz’s casket and, as others did, embraced acting Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro.
But what seemed most remarkable was not a display of partisan politics but precisely the opposite. Venezuela has made classical music so integral to its national culture that the absence of the country’s most famous conductor at the state funeral of a president is simply unthinkable. That is not true everywhere in the world.