by Steven Woodruff
Gustavo Dudamel, a Venezuelan and the current conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic published an opinion piece today in the Los Angeles Times. Long criticized for his silence on political matters, he has finally made an attempt to explain himself. But the result leaves us with no better idea of where he stands and explains little. The question is, as an artist hired from international talent pool to lead an important American institution, does he owe us something more?
The fact is, Americans like our artists with a dose of political edge. We expect them to be engaged, to contribute to important social and political dialogues. Many are political to some degree both in their public attitudes and in their artistic work. Dudamel is not. While he has programmed Latin American work as part of his directorship here he has largely avoided direct involvement in contentious debates affecting music in America, and the explosive politics of his native Venezuela and South America in general. His essay for the L.A. Times largely puts him at odds with Latin Americans (especially artists) who have generally advocated some kind of activism, grass roots politics (revolutionary or otherwise) or in some cases held political office themselves.
Dudamel has thus far led a charmed career. In 2007, aged 26, he was named to succeed Salonen (also a very young conductor when he was first appointed) as the orchestra’s Artistic Director. He has benefited both from Venezuela’s generous music education platform El Sistema in which he was trained, as well as the fame he’s achieved with his Hollywood story as conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. Ironically the orchestra he conducts in Venezuela, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, bears the name of one of South America’s great radical political figureheads. It is also the international musical ambassador of the government- funded and widely socialized El Sistema program that delivers first rate musical education to impoverished students. At the other end of the scale is the L.A. Phil, an orchestra with a presumptive civic backbone but which survives almost exclusively on wealthy patronage from America’s donor class. It is primarily focused on the elite world of classical music in performance. Compared to the kind of money that fronts the orchestra’s high profile performance responsibilities the money dedicated to its education division is almost nonexistent. They are two opposite visions about where music comes from and how it might be delivered.
The criticism of Dudamel’s silence mostly has centered on the political issues of Venezuela and its turbulent relations with the United States and the rest of Latin America. Both former President Hugo Chávez and the current President, Nicolás Maduro have been in U.S. foreign policy crosshairs for more than a decade. El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu (who has managed his brilliant program through many Venezuelan administrations), was also famously quiet on partisan politics, and perhaps this is where Dudamel inherits his own position. The Sistema motto, “Social Action for Music” is vague on whether the “social action” includes politics or is limited to more personal goals, but judging from the determined silence of both Dudamel and his mentor perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from either.
My own hopes for an outspoken Dudamel fall in more with questions about the accessibility of classical music in America and how important organizations like the L.A. Philharmonic continue to marginalize big issues in education, availability, and relevance. When the new and smaller Disney Hall was built the audience was effectively reduced by a thousand seats. The unwelcoming, claustrophobic building cost a fortune. Prices for the cheapest seats tripled, many older subscription holders stopped coming. One of the early articles on the new hall polled the voices of a dozen of the orchestras players about what the new hall would mean. Only one, a violist, made a connection with how the hall and new conductor were going to engage listeners; all the others focused on how a world class hall would benefit musicians, their experience delivering first class music, emphasize high profile conductors, and enhance the stature of the orchestra and its position on the world stage. It was a poor start for those hoping for a more democratic application of classical music’s possibilities to engage a big city and its social underpinnings.
Dudamel’s essay seems to acknowledge an ongoing disengagement with the issues mentioned above.The dispiriting take away is that in his essay he has explained so little. He seems to have effectively muzzled his own political position in both Venezuela and in his adopted America. But he has erred in bothering to write an editorial with such bland conclusions. We know as much from his silence as we know from his writing to dispel it. We all understand the unity principal behind music. He says it motivates his conducting. It’s a powerful metaphor, of course, but we get no hint of how to apply it beyond simple music making. I think we all understand that kind of thinking is simply not enough. Ultimately, Dudamel’s main exhortation, to remain “above the fray”, comes across as calculated avoidance.