Can Gustavo Dudamel and El Sistema Navigate Venezuela's Upheaval?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra before the beginning of the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers in Caracas, on April, 22, 2013. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra at a swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers in Caracas in 2013. (JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrives in New York to give a pair of concerts on March 16 and 17 at Lincoln Center, its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, faces an increasingly difficult political situation back in his native Venezuela.

It’s been a month since violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and government forces in Venezuela first grabbed global headlines. Protests rage on with no sign of ending. Dudamel himself has been pressured to speak out on the situation, notably by a fellow Venezuelan musician, pianist Gabriela Montero.

Montero and others have said that Dudamel should use his global stature – and exercise his ethical responsibility as an artist – to take a stronger stand against what they see as a repressive government.

But others argue that Dudamel can’t afford to get involved in partisan politics because of his close ties to El Sistema, Venezuela’s vast, state-funded national music education system.

Tricia Tunstall, author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, says that El Sistema’s mission has always been “to stay out of partisan politics and to continue in the work that is their highest priority, which is to work with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children, giving them safe haven, musical training and an environment where they can learn to be productive citizens.”

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a musician and economist, and it has flourished under eight different governments while aiming to keep many impoverished kids on the straight and narrow.

“Yes, they are funded by the government but [Abreu] does not identify the Sistema with any political program and that is why the Sistema has been able to flourish, survive and grow from eleven kids in 1975 to almost 600,000 kids in 2014,” Tunstall added.

Mark Swed, the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Dudamel after the conductor led a controversial concert in Venezuela on February 12, the same day that three people died in anti-government protests there. Dudamel told him that he was unaware of the nearby protests, and insists that he’s firmly opposed to any violence from either side of the conflict.

“Ultimately, we have no idea how Dudamel, maestro Abreu and others are functioning in El Sistema,” Swed said. “Abreu’s way of working has always been to try and influence the politics subtly from the inside. The second he takes a public stand, he can’t do that anymore.”

Meanwhile, other musicians are taking a firm political position, albeit from a distance. Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray is organizing a “Concert for Peace and Liberty” in Berlin this Sunday, which will feature a number of fellow expats including Gabriela Montero. Izcaray says that the goal of the concert is to raise awareness for victims of political violence, including several musicians who he says have been “detained, beaten, tortured and threatened by the national police.”

Izcaray says he doesn’t hold any bad feelings towards Dudamel or other Venezuelan musicians who aren’t speaking out, noting that being a musician in Venezuela means usually relying on the government for support. “I’m pretty confident a lot of this has to do with fear of losing support for the institution, maybe they’ll cut their funding or be fired.”

He adds: “As far as artists go, we do have to defend each other.”

Listen to the full podcast above and tell us what you think below: what is the responsibility of artists in times of political unrest? Should art and politics remain separate or do creative people have a duty to speak out?

Photos: 1) People shout slogans as they protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in front of riot policemen outside the Cuban embassy in Caracas on February 25, 2014 (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images) 2) Gustavo Dudamel, Jose Antonio Abreu and Venezuelan president Nicholas Madura.

Hosted by:

Naomi Lewin


Brian Wise


More in:

Comments [9]

Jose Lopez from Freeport, NY

The Terms Oligarchy, CIA, and Intervention are not made up words. If we believe that they don't play any part in Latin America, we are very Naive. Have we forgotten about the overthrow of democratic elected president Manuel Zelaya in Honduras? And if providing education and health to many who never dreamed of such "luxuries" is ruining a country, I don't know where we are headed. I respect the fact that Gabriela Montero is using her right to protest, but that does not mean that every musician and artist has to share her political view, and that we all have to pretend that her opinion is the correct one.

Mar. 17 2014 12:36 PM
millie from Washington

If you, as educated, open minded individuals are willing to abandon name calling and stereotypes like right wingers and "Cia" intervention, "oligarchy", the "rich", then you can understand that in the last 15 years the government of Venezuela ruined the country believing that the model Fidel Castro applied in Cuba is the way to go. There have been many "elections" in Cuba. The dreamers of the sixties have to wake up,be brave, understand communism does not work! Dudamel's silence makes him an accomplice.

Mar. 16 2014 09:42 AM

Socialism, including its more radical variations, is still an appealing ideology to many educated people around the world. Underdeveloped countries are usually stereotyped as oppressive to the poor by a rich minority and history seems to support it in many cases. But are all cases similar?. During 40 years of democracy Venezuela made a big leap to progress and scores of poor people (including myself) had access to education, health and job opportunities as never before in our history. We were in the right track until Chavez. In the last 15 years our country decayed to turn into one of the most corrupt, dangerous, and lawless countries in Latin America. In the name of the people! Under the lead of a false saviour! How can Dudamel be so insensitive?

Mar. 15 2014 08:49 PM
Jan from California

Art is not above moral law; a children's orchestra is not above moral law. Dudamel's first responsibility is to social justice, period. Silence gives your consent.

Mar. 14 2014 09:02 PM
James Owens from Williamstown, MA

I agree that that perspective of the article shares the anti-Chavez view of the US mainstream media. You would not know from the article that protesters caused deaths. Where is a comparable music education system in the US?

Mar. 14 2014 10:25 AM

Its the right-wingers that you should would not the Venezuelan government ,which has been Democractically elected time and time again despite the interference from the United states Empire and the oligarchy and the rich one percent who want to keep everything for them selves and nothing for poor people. Since Chavez was elected president the poverty level have decreased and more been people have a chance at decent life .They have universal health care while here in the US we have the greedy insurance companies running the show.

Mar. 14 2014 12:41 AM
Victor Mason from Mamaroneck, NY

Mr. Dudamel is exactly right.

Mar. 13 2014 07:17 PM
herman albers from valencia, venezuela

a very cynical position that of Dudamel and Abreu. Furtwangler and von Karajan took symilar stand with nazism, a very unethical position. People are dying in this country, either by bullets or hunger and these gentlemen take the "no see, no hear, no speak" position, allegedly to save "the sistema", very cynical stand to put it mildly. These gentlemen should consider the stand taken by Gabriela Montero, who has taught them a lesson on decency and ethics.

Mar. 13 2014 06:26 PM
William Stribling from New York City

This article makes assumptions that the station's listeners all all in tune with the right wing CIA backed attempts to overthrow elected governments in
Venezuela. Well, I am not. You're setting a low level of political commentary for 'our' station. What next for the stations inquisitors?

Mar. 13 2014 06:04 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Conducting Business

WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

Conducting Business is hosted by Naomi Lewin and produced by Brian Wise.

subscribe to Conducting Business

Listen to Stitcher