Gustavo Dudamel Responds to Furor Over Venezuela Concert

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The conductor Gustavo Dudamel has responded to sharp criticism that came after he conducted a high-profile concert in his native Venezuela on Feb. 12, the same day that anti-government protests in Caracas had spawned violent clashes and left three dead.

"I knew that there was to be a demonstration," Dudamel told the Los Angeles Times, "but I was rehearsing all day, and I didn't know anything about the violence."

The controversy started last week, when Dudamel, who conducts the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, was chastised by a fellow Venezuelan musician, pianist Gabriela Montero, for not speaking out against policies of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. In an open letter on her Facebook page, published the day after the violence in Caracas, Montero argued that Dudamel could no longer stay silent about a government that protesters accuse of oppression and blame for a variety of economic and social problems. Montero and Dudamel are said to be old friends.

Montero wants artists to speak out against what she sees as an increasingly dictatorial and dysfunctional government, instead of tacitly supporting it by playing concerts that celebrate Venezuela's national music education system, El Sistema. Dudamel has resisted such calls, saying it would not be in the apolitical spirit of El Sistema, which serves some 500,000 school children.

Initially, news reports circulated that Dudamel had been conducting the Simón Bolivar Symphony at a presidential parade in Maracay on Feb. 12 with President Maduro in attendance. Dudamel vehemently denied playing for Maduro, saying “that’s crazy.”

"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."

The conductor has forged at least some ties with Venezuelan politicians in the past. He met with Maduro last year about plans for a "Dudamel Hall" in Caracas; months earlier he performed at the funeral of Hugo Chávez.

An organization of Los Angeles-based Venezuelans held a vigil in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall before a concert Friday night by the Bolívar Orchestra. That orchestra is helpingto kick off an 11-day Tchaikovsky festival with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Dudamel is also music director.

The situation has spawned a variety of responses. Tom Service, a classical music critic at London’s Guardian, questioned whether the conductor could truly remain neutral given his stature.

"The question for Dudamel... is where he draws the line on what he's able to tolerate from his political masters in Venezuela,” wrote Service in a Friday column. “If he's true to his essential ethos that music is independent of whatever government is in charge, he ought to feel he can speak freely and critically to power as well as effectively be a tacit observer of what's happening in his country.”

What do you think of Dudamel's actions? Of Montero's criticisms? Please leave your comments below.

Updated 2/22