While Venezuela has been the focus of attention recently due to its political turmoil and dire shortages of basic necessities, this has not stopped President Nicolas Maduro from turning his attention towards one of the world’s best-known Venezuelans for not toeing the line.
Gustavo Dudamel is the conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. Originally created as a youth orchestra, the SBSO is the centerpiece of Venezuela’s “El Sistema” of state-sponsored youth orchestras. Dudamel forged his career through the system, which former president Hugo Chavez strongly supported during his tenure.
Dudamel has found himself in a delicate position between arts and politics for several years. In 2014, he was strongly criticized for making a high profile appearance in Caracas on February 12th, the same day “that violent clashes between protesters and police in the country left three dead”:
Initially, reports had circulated on social media that Dudamel had been conducting a performance in Maracay with president Nicolas Maduro in attendance. The conductor has denied that vehemently, however, pointing out that he was in the country’s capital city leading an orchestra of young musicians from his home town of Barquisimeto in celebration of El Sistema’s foundation 39 years ago.
This incident led Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero to write an open letter to Dudamel and José Abreu, founder of El Sistema, pleading that they should use their public status to speak out against government policy:
Writing an open letter to Dudamel and Abréu on Facebook, [Montero] says that ‘the time has come in which the artists with the most prominent voices can no longer quietly accept the theft and destruction of our nation by the corrupted manifestation of a political ideology, for fear of biting the hand that feeds them. Our democracy has collapsed, and with it our dignity.’
Addressing Dudamel in person, Montero says that he is ‘right to focus your unique creative energy on the beautiful flower of music and youth, and nobody can deny that you have brought joy and rejuvenation to classical music nationally and internationally. I would be the first to congratulate you for it, but you are simply wrong to ignore the toxic oasis in which that flower stands alone, and on the brink of withering and dying, subsumed as it will be by the stench that surrounds it.’
Following the criticism, Dudamel, who has both enjoyed a long friendship with Montero and shared the concert stage with her on a number of occasions, released a statement. ‘What our National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela represents are the values of Peace, Love and Unity,’ it read. ‘February 12 is a special day because it was the day that a project was born that has become the emblem and flag of our country to the world. Therefore, we commemorate all youth, we commemorate the future, we commemorate brotherhood. Our music represents the universal language of peace; therefore, we lament yesterday’s events. With our music, and with our instruments in hand, we declare an absolute no to violence and an resounding yes to peace.’
Perhaps it’s no surprise for an artist, who may know Pachelbel but not praxeology, to hide behind high-falootin’ gobbledygook so he can focus on his art.
However, as much as Dudamel wanted to avoid politics, politics had no desire of avoiding him.
In May, Dudamel spoke out against the Maduro government after a member of El Sistema died in street protests that killed more than 120. In August, he was involved in successful negotiations with National guard forces to release Wuilly Arteaga (pictured above), a Venezuelan violinist that had been detained in July. Arteaga had gained a following on social media for playing music in the middle of violent street protests against Maduro.
Apparently Dudamo’s recent involvement was too much for Maduro to take.
“I hope God forgives you,” Maduro reportedly said, criticizing Dudamel for spending time in Madrid and Los Angeles while a political and economic crisis deepens in his homeland.
“Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel. But act with ethics, and don’t let yourself be deceived into attacking the architects of this beautiful movement of young boys and girls.”
(Nice orchestra you’ve got there. ‘Shame if anything were to happen to it.)
Dudamel’s remarks and involvement in Arteaga’s release appears to have been enough for the Venezuelan government to cancel the SBSO’s tours of the United States and Asia. BBC Music Magazine reports in its October 2017 issue that “Dudamel’s continued involvement with the SBSO is now believed to be in doubt.”