Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.
In addition to the current tour that is being used by Chavez to burnish his image at home, Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (for which he also serves as music director) in the national anthem for the initial broadcasts of a new government television channel that replaced an independent channel shut down by Chavez for criticizing his administration. The televised concert was, as the Times noted, “dominated by images of Mr. Chavez and the phrase ‘Onward, Commandante!’”
So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chavez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region.
Many classical musicians have never been squeamish about taking coin from the hands of dictators or about allowing their talents to be purchased for the purpose of bolstering evil regimes. In one of the most recent instances, the New York Philharmonic accepted an invitation to play before the leadership of one of the craziest and most oppressive governments in the world: North Korea. While the New Yorkers claimed their music would be a symbol of freedom and improving relations, the only ones to benefit from the show were the Communist regime and the orchestra.
But there is another more admirable tradition in the arts: that of the artist who puts principle above all else and refuses to bow down to tyrants. The most distinguished example is the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was an ardent foe of fascism in his Italian homeland. After an initial flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s movement, Toscanini defied the dictator and became a symbol of resistance to his rule. He suffered attacks and insults, and it was only his status as an international superstar that saved him from a worse fate. During this period it should be noted that Toscanini also conducted the inaugural performance of the fledgling Palestine Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic) that was largely comprised of Jewish refugees from Germany. He only returned to Italy after the Second World War and the demise of fascism.
Dudamel may be a wonderful music talent and have a long, celebrated career ahead of him. But the laurels that go to those artists, who, at their personal cost, stand up for freedom, will not go to him. He may be a fine conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is no Toscanini.