When I met Gustavo Dudamel three years ago to talk about his upcoming TchaikovskyFest with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he took a while to get around to the L.A. Phil. He was just back from Caracas and over the moon about conducting a new Venezuelan orchestra of children 7 to 14. First he had to show me a video of these kids nailing passages in a Tchaikovsky symphony.
This spring, before a looming Schubert symphony cycle, the same thing happened. Uppermost on his mind was the new Venezuelan Youth Orchestra that he was planning to bring to the U.S. — including a stop at the Hollywood Bowl — for the first time in September, playing works as difficult and sophisticated as John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony. Hundreds of kids from all over the country had auditioned for this orchestra, which Dudamel took as a hopeful sign for the future of his embattled country.
Unfortunately, there will be no ride in any machine. On Friday, Venezuela's beleaguered president, Nicolás Maduro, criticized Dudamel by name on television, and then on Sunday, Maduro canceled the youth orchestra tour.
Dudamel has demanded that the country's leaders solve the economic and political crises that have led to violence in the streets as protesters clash with pro-government supporters, police and military. But what mainly seems to have set Maduro off is that Dudamel, sources told The Times, worked behind the scenes with former Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to free popular violinist Wuilly Arteaga, who was arrested and beaten for playing the Venezuelan national anthem in the streets during protests against Maduro.
Clearly canceling the tour had little, if anything, to do with the safety or well-being of the young musicians, for whom this trip could have been a life-changing event. It was about punishing Dudamel. Maduro may think this is a valid response to the saber-rattling coming out of Washington, where the youth orchestra was also scheduled to perform, what with President Trump threatening U.S. military action against Maduro in Venezuela and Congress imposing new sanctions against a country where people already suffer dire shortages of essential goods and runaway inflation.
"Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel," Madero sarcastically said in his televised condemnation of the conductor.
This is a welcome Dudamel never asked for. His hesitancy to speak out against his country and the current administration had been made increasingly problematic by Maduro's actions, especially the efforts to have the constitution rewritten and the violence, which Dudamel abhors. But attacks on musicians made it personal.
El Sistema is one of the government's most popular programs, involving as many as 700,000 children. Dudamel believes that the children's welfare, particularly in a time of privation, comes first. But calls for him to join the opposition have grown louder. As the Venezuelan population began turning against Maduro's regime, Dudamel's own popularity fell as long as he remained associated with the ruling powers.
Demonstrations against him have been held around the world, most recently in Hollywood on July 30. Those close to Dudamel reportedly have been counseling him that Maduro's government has become dangerously unstable, and the conductor cannot afford to be on the wrong side. His response is that the situation is more complicated than that.
It is more complicated than that, even if Dudamel's explanations sound, on the surface, simplistic. He says the violence results from a minority of militants on both sides. He also says he's not a politician but a musician, and he speaks out day and night — with music.
Music, in fact, can serve diplomacy. A New York Philharmonic tour to Russia in the 1950s opened channels of dialogue during the Cold War, as did a Philadelphia Orchestra tour to Red China. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic went to Tokyo two years ago, a reception for Dudamel allowed U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats to meet on neutral ground. At a time when relations between our two countries are particularly fraught, an irresistible National Youth Orchestra might have provided the goodwill needed to break the ice.
In Venezuela, El Sistema offers one of the country's few safe spaces, as well as places where members of different sides still work together. Were Maduro in a pique to cut the hundreds of millions of dollars of funding, the immediate suffering would of course be great.
But there is no guarantee that the opposition, were it to get in power, would reinstate El Sistema, given all the other competing needs. The opposition, furthermore, is not so much a single program, but a coalition of different groups that are not necessarily socially conscious.
As bad as things are right now in Venezuela, a failed coup before the presidential election next year might lead to martial law. Maduro takes care of the police and army, so despite a few defections, they continue to support him for their own well-being.
Against this background, Dudamel may deserve more credit for not speaking out. That was the way of his mentor, José Antonio Abreu. Now in poor in health, Abreu successfully nurtured El Sistema, with Machiavellian cunning, through every Venezuelan government of the last 40 years, whatever the party. As the freeing of violinist Arteaga reveals, that has been Dudamel's approach.
So don't go looking for answers Tuesday or Thursday nights, when Dudamel conducts concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. There is nothing of political intent in concert programs decided on months ago. A conductor who knows what he's doing, furthermore, has to be able to compartmentalize. It's not such a bad idea to trust that Dudamel knows what's he's doing, no matter what he decides his next move will be. No one knows better than he exactly what's on the line, and what forces hold that line.
Read the related news article and see Dudamel's Twitter thread from Monday morning here.
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