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Conductor Gustavo Dudamel will play music, not politics

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times /file 2013

He has inspired thousands of children and become one of classical music’s most dynamic, young conductors. But as Gustavo Dudamel returns to Boston next weekend for a pair of high-profile events, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director finds himself in an unlikely spot. He’s being criticized for not taking a stand on the deteriorating political situation in his native Venezuela.

In particular, many are upset that he commemorated the anniversary of the famed, government-funded El Sistema youth orchestra program — of which he is a product — on a day last month when protesters were killed.

“He’s a musical giant but a moral midget,” Harvard University professor Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister, said in an interview.


Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero posted a public letter criticizing Dudamel.

“Gustavo, you are right to focus your unique creative energy on the beautiful flower of music and youth,” wrote Montero. “But you are simply wrong to ignore the toxic oasis in which that flower stands alone, and on the brink of withering and dying, subsumed as it will be by the stench that surrounds it.”

It is under this backdrop that Dudamel holds an open rehearsal Saturday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium designed, in part, to help raise money for Sistema Side by Side, a program run by the Longy School of Music of Bard College. Next Sunday afternoon, the maestro conducts a sold-out performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Symphony Hall presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Expect to hear Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. But don’t expect to hear Dudamel address the conflicts between protesters and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro that have led to some 20 deaths.

When asked to comment on the situation recently, a Los Angeles Philharmonic spokeswoman said that Dudamel would not be taking questions on the subject. She provided a statement from Dudamel that read, in part: “I abhor and renounce all violence. I love my country and its people and what is happening pains me beyond words. The values and music-making of El Sistema represent the very best of Venezuela. For almost 40 years, the importance of El Sistema to millions of people both in and outside of Venezuela is impossible to measure. I cannot allow El Sistema to become a casualty of politics. Regardless of political or public pressure, I will continue this work in Venezuela and throughout the world.”


Dudamel’s appearance in Venezuela during protests last month didn’t sit well with Hausmann, who subscribes to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera and said that he’s a fan of Dudamel’s work as a musician.

“But I am morally outraged that he has been unwilling to speak out against the violations of basic freedoms, human rights, and the fact that basic news of what’s happening in the country can not make it to TV and radio,” said Hausmann.

Those presenting Dudamel over the weekend say they have no problem with his stance. They point to his commitment to El Sistema, the state-funded music education system that helped him develop as a young violinist and, later, conductor.

“For me, what’s more interesting are his actions,” said Longy president Karen Zorn. “He’s still incredibly dedicated to his country. He’s a superstar in the classical music world, so he could have moved on and forgotten all about Venezuela and the people of Venezuela.”


Celebrity Series executive director Gary Dunning said he’s not surprised Dudamel wants to avoid political debate.

“He’s personally and emotionally committed to El Sistema, which has been funded by the Venezuelan government since its founding, and I assume he doesn’t want to put El Sistema at risk,” said Dunning.

Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst College with a specialty in Venezuela, feels that Dudamel is in a tough spot. To attack the government could conceivably hurt El Sistema. Still, said Corrales, Dudamel can afford to speak out from his perch in Los Angeles.

“He’s a star, someone who, precisely because of his stature in Venezuela, could take some bigger risks,” said Corrales.

Dudamel did conduct interviews in advance of his current tour, but those interviews were done in December because the Los Angeles Philharmonic said he would be too busy as the dates approached. The interviews were also no longer than 20 minutes, and the conductor shied away from any penetrating discussion.

When asked if he had any advice for incoming Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons, Dudamel said no. He praised Nelsons as “a great artist full of energy, a very humble guy, and a great human being.”

When asked about New England Conservatory’s decision to no longer train students as part of the Sistema Fellows Program it once ran, Dudamel again danced around the issue.

“It’s not an end,” he said, despite NEC’s decision to stop training new fellows. “Let’s not say that we finished.”


He spoke of the NEC fellows who were now working throughout the country to create programs to help underserved, young musicians.

“This doesn’t have to be connected to a school or conservatory,” Dudamel said. “El Sistema is not something you have to teach and learn in only one way.”

Hausmann, the Harvard professor, understands Dudamel’s commitment to El Sistema. He says that he, too, values the program. While serving as the Venezuelan economic minister in the early ’90s, Hausmann said he spared the program from the massive cuts inflicted on other government departments during a financial crisis.

That doesn’t mean he thinks Dudamel should remain silent.

“If a program that is supposed to benefit hundreds of thousands of kids depends on people renouncing their freedom of speech, then what does that say about that kind of country?” he said. “Maybe he should say, ‘I wish I could say more, but in my country, human rights do not exist, and freedom of speech do not exist.’ ”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at