March 2014: 'El Sistema must make a stand in Venezuela'

March 2014: 'El Sistema must make a stand in Venezuela'

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El Sistema and its most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, owe it to the people of Venezuela to condemn the violent suppression of demonstrators and the media, says Ivan Hewett.

As Venezuela descends further into violence, the question intriguing the musical world is: which way will El Sistema go?

The world-famous music education programme, now imitated the world over, has become Venezuela’s best-known brand. It is a beacon of idealism and social inclusiveness, in a country where money and connections are normally the key to success.

This means El Sistema’s claim on our admiration is as much ethical as musical, and that puts it in a difficult position. The country is in the grip of violent disputes over issues that have a huge ethical component. They're not just about collapsing living standards, though they are certainly that. They're also about corruption in high places, and the constant attacks on the media's freedom to report what’s actually going on. So people everywhere, inside Venezuela and outside, want to see how El Sistema will respond.

The response so far of Gustavo Dudamel, the most famous alumnus of El Sistema and now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, has been disappointing to say the least. Intransigent evasiveness best describes it.

On February 13 he was challenged by Gabriela Montero, another prominent Venezuelan musician, to take a stand. "Yesterday," she wrote, "while tens of thousands of peaceful protesters marched all over Venezuela to express their frustration, pain and desperation at the total civic, moral, physical, economic and human breakdown of Venezuela... Gustavo and Christian Vazquez [a younger conductor, also an El Sistema alumnus] led the orchestra in a concert celebrating Youth Day and the 39 years of the birth of El Sistema. They played a concert while their people were being massacred."

El Sistema has a duty to speak out, she says, and adds: "No more excuses, no more 'Artists are above and beyond everything'."

That excuse is precisely what Dudamel has offered. We had to play, he said in response to Montero’s letter, because it was an important day for the organisation.

"Our music represents the universal language of peace; therefore, we lament yesterday’s events," he added. In the Los Angeles Times last week he tried to finesse this bit of feebleness, explaining that he was "simply a musician. If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody."

This isn’t just evasive, this is pure, copper-bottomed nonsense. One can sympathise with the difficulties of El Sistema in the current situation. Although it’s run by an independent foundation, it’s no secret that Hugo Chavez was jealous of its fame and resentful of its independence. He wanted to co-opt El Sistema as a symbol of the Venezulean revolution, and given that most of the organisation’s funding comes from the state, it’s hard to believe the organisation is as free from government interference as it likes to suggest. Especially as Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, seems to have inherited all his authoritarian tendencies.

So you could say Dudamel is simply acting to protect the organisation, and the hundreds of thousands of children who benefit from it. But it’s wrong to think that the choice facing him is a stark one, between outright defiance or doing nothing.

One of the advantages music has over the word is that it can hint at things that words are obliged to say outright. This is why some musicians have managed to survive under dictatorships, while writers and painters and film-makers around them have perished. Shostakovich survived Stalin, while many of his friends and colleagues in other art forms such as Meyerhold and Mandelstam "disappeared". And yet Shostakovich was able to express his defiance of the regime by embedding messages in his music, some covert, some almost blatant.

Dudamel is a conductor, not a composer, so that way of taking a stand isn't open to him. But there are others. Two minutes silence at that now-notorious El Sistema concert in Caracas on February 12 would have been appropriate, at the very least. Including a brief funeral piece in the programme, in mourning for the victims, would have been even better.

As for future concerts, there are things Dudamel and El Sistema could do which would burnish their credentials abroad and point the finger at the regime. For instance, they could programme pieces devoted to the idea of freedom: the Eroica Symphony of Beethoven, for instance, or the the symphony Arthur Honegger wrote while Paris was under Nazi occupation.

All these things would make a point, in a way that would certainly annoy the regime, without making El Sistema vulnerable to the accusation that it's overtly siding with the protesters (which the government insists are made up of spoilt rich kids and saboteurs in the pay of foreign powers, who have nothing to do with "the people").

If over the coming months it’s just "business as usual" for Dudamel and his relationships with El Sistema, we'll have to conclude that all his high-sounding stuff about music being a "universal language of peace" is so much hot air.

There’s another danger in Dudamel’s present stance. There are rumours that in private he's a stout defender of Chavez's and Maduro's revolution, and won’t hear a word said against it. If he continues to sit on his hands, we might start to believe them.



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