Amo, lloro, canto, sueño

While the Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (who we caught last week) continue their brief but triumphant roll across the United States, a certain amount of carping has been on the rise, particularly from Pliable at On an Overgrown Path. Yesterday, he ran photos of “protests against Chavez’s decision to shut down opposition-aligned television station RCTV in May 2007…. Perhaps DG will use them on the next Dudamel CD sleeve?” This was in the context of quoting an approving link (N.B.: calling flattering compliments “wise words” has a tendency to sound a little arrogant) from The Penitent Wagnerite:

Supporting Dudamel, his youth orchestra, and other Venezuelan cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship, even if we don’t so much care for the dictator. While Mr. Dudamel should not be made to suffer for being the product and superstar of the music-education program of Venezuela, we should not get in the business of supporting Chavez or the end-results of his projects until it becomes clear that Chavez is committed to democracy and human rights.

For the record, particularly since the 2004 recall vote, Hugo Chávez has moved steadily into this lefty’s “bad arguments for a position I hold dear” category, although, for a little perspective, he’s hardly the first or, so far at least, the worst demagogue to hold power in the Americas. (Amending the constitution to run for a third term? Old joke.) But all the innuendo about Dudamel et al. vis-à-vis Chávez (Penitent, for example, mentioned Furtwängler) needs to be parsed in light of two salient points:

  1. El Sistema has been around for over thirty years, founded by José Antonio Abreu in 1975, pre-dating even Chávez’s failed coup attempt by nearly a generation; and
  2. El Sistema is currently providing an education for a quarter of a million children and teenagers that the majority of them wouldn’t get otherwise.

So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn’t a self-contained touring ensemble, they’re the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? It’s worth noting, by the way, that the station that state-run network replaced, the above-mentioned RCTV, wasn’t “shut down.” It came up for license renewal, which the government denied. Playing semantics? Not exactly: as the media watchdog group FAIR pointed out back in the spring, RCTV has hardly been a beacon of enlightened discourse itself, and had clearly violated the “public trust” that most countries require in return for access to the broadcasting spectrum. (RCTV, incidentally, is still viewable throughout most of the country via cable.) Should they still have kept their license? Maybe, maybe not—the point is, the situation in Venezuela is far more complicated than the simplified stories that make it back to the American and European mass media.

Should El Sistema, then, just keep a lower PR profile until Chávez behaves? I rather think that the orchestra is doing exactly what they need to do in order to insulate El Sistema from any current or future Venezuelan administration. In his New York Times profile of Dudamel a couple of weeks ago, Arthur Lubow called the simultaneous celebrity of conductor and orchestra “a stroke of auspicious timing.” I don’t think it’s coincidental: Abreu is consciously using the orchestra’s tour as an El Sistema roadshow—sow goodwill and money will follow. (And already has: the system’s latest expansion is being financed mostly by the Inter-American Development Bank, signaling the group’s evolution from a national symbol to a regional one.) Recordings, tours, PR—if Chávez makes you uneasy, isn’t it an improvement to replace his financial support with Deutsche Grammophon’s?

In fact, it’s that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema‘s place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema‘s educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That’s my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System’s model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it’s time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one’s brow and murmuring inconclusively.

And, of course—the flag jackets. Maybe I’m inured from years of baseball games and seeing the red, white, and blue unfurl from the Symphony Hall ceiling every time the Pops plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but any flag that every side can convincingly wrap itself in doesn’t bug me that much, Eddie Izzard’s warnings notwithstanding. Pliable pointed out that those protesters were flying the Venezuelan flag as well—how do we know that some of the orchestra weren’t wearing their jackets in that spirit, and not a pro-Chávez one? We don’t. I mentioned last week my sense that El Sistema‘s popularity cut across party lines; writing in the Observer last summer, Ed Vuillamy made the same point:

El Sistema sank roots in Venezuelan society deep enough to survive the winds—hurricanes, indeed—of tumultuous political change, military coups and now the Chavez revolution. El Sistema is probably, and remarkably, the only organism immune to politics in one of the world’s most highly politicised societies.

Maybe both Ed and I have simply been effectively snowed, but I rather doubt it—Abreu has woven El Sistema into the fabric of Venezuelan life on a level deeper than politics. If you look at the upside of El Sistema and the downsides of the Bolivarian Revolution, it’s not cognitively dissonant for the former to win out over the latter. It’s awfully comforting when pragmatism and moral absolutism coincide, but most of the time, you throw as much as you know on the scale, and see which side tips the balance. For me, it was the kids on the Symphony Hall stage.

Update (11/15): Pliable responds with yet more hints, innuendo, and oblique comparisons. The penultimate paragraph still stands.

Update (11/16): I cheerfully declare the penultimate paragraph moot: Pliable takes a stand in the comments on his post (as I expected, it’s the opposite of mine).


  1. Quite balanced an argument, indeed!I’m neither a supporter of Chavez, nor of any row or spurious dictator, but to look to just one side of the scale is – in my experience – the worst thing of all.Yes, what the Bolivar young musicians wear – and the students protesting at home wave – is Venezuela’s, not Chavez’s flag…Dudamel like Furtwängler? If only! (but he has time to improve…)Furtwängler (like Krauss and Strauss) was not sentenced in Nürnberg, as a nazi criminal… Why? Because the entire world recognized that he had served art (and his folk) not just Hitler.Yes, in his 1943 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth he played the piccolo’s trill bars 338-343 of the Finale with a “strepitoso”, instead of the “dolce” that is written on the score (and to which he went back after the war…) but was that really a crime?

  2. Thanks for this. I love “On An Overgrown Path,” but I think Mr. Pliable is on the wrong tack with this one. I don’t feel one way or the other about Chavez, but at least he isn’t responsible for the murders of hundreds of thousands of innocents, which cannot be said about either George Bush or Tony Blair, for instance. I don’t think it’s even remotely acceptable at this particular moment in history for Americans or Brits to be playing the moral superiority game.

  3. Yes, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous for Americans to condemn the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra (…what are our orchestras doing to protest our nefarious activities? Nothing!), and obviously when you have something as good as El Sistema up and running, sometimes you make sacrifices to protect it. However, I disagree with your flag points. Part of what makes flag waving a nationalist tool is the vagueness of it and the way that it conflates many different ideas into one mass (if you question that one part, you’re questioning the whole). I don’t think that the flying the flag as a protester is very clear as a message, but crowds of protesters will do their chants, etc, to make their intent known, which is absent here. When you wave a flag (without some other kind of context, as with protest), you are expressing support for the nation that that flag represents, and it’s rather anachronistic to think of a nation as anything other than a state. If I were to wave an American flag when I go out on vacation (or tour), people would be quite rational in thinking that I was an American patriot, supported current policy, and was kind of a rude guest. At the very least, if Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra thought that we would get that they were not supporting their administration with their flags, it’s a bit of a stretch.“any flag that every side can convincingly wrap itself in”That would seem to be precisely no flag anywhere, because all flags are flags of identification, which always is also exclusion. This is also a simple calculus- define your culture, nation, whatever, and you also demarcate who is outside it. Your example is just one flag that two sides can wrap themselves in.So, IMO, flag waving is pretty tasteless in any instance.To come back to the first point, yes, the flag jackets are no different than the American flags at pop concerts, and Bush has definitely done far more damage to the world than Chavez (that devilish W). Furthermore, the U.S. has done nothing but horrible things to Latin America at large for at least the last 30 years (and we don’t have such a great record vis a vis human rights, etc!), so we hardly have any vantage point from which to criticize Chavez, let alone the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

  4. northumbrian monk: I agree about flags re: nationalism in many cases, but I was thinking, in particular, of the American flag, which remains an available symbol—at least in America—for anyone of any political persuasion: W, Bruce Springsteen, Larry Flynt, Abbie Hoffmann, etc., etc. In that case, the right-or-wrong of the flag becomes not something inherent in the flag itself, but a function of whoever’s waving it. I’m not much of a flag-waver myself, but any flag that’s still a meaningful (i.e., non-ironic) vehicle for saying anything about one’s country—even that it needs desperately to improve and live up to its ideals—doesn’t bother me that much. (Of course, for example, there are places in the world—I would bet Venezuela is one of them, at the moment—where the American flag is a more negative, polarized symbol. It’s a case-by-case basis.)

  5. Thanks for this. It has been, frankly, depressing to see so many in Classical Blogdonia make transparently… (I’m afraid there is no other word) <>retarded<> arguments, holding Dudamel and the SBYO to standards of conduct not observed by any other artist in the history of mankind.So fine — while we’re at it, let’s ream out Duke Ellington for not publicly denouncing American apartheid while touring on the State Department’s dime. Because Duke was a big fucking hypocrite for acting as the cultural ambassador for a nation that systematically surpressed the rights of hs people… is <>that<> how we’re rolling now?And are the people criticizing Dudamel and the SBYO really so stupid that they cannot wrap their minds around the idea of being proud of your country while being perhaps somewhat ambivilent about your government? I don’t think so. Instead, I think those people are making the kind of self-evidently moronic bad-faith arguments that would make Fox News producers blush.

  6. Funny how all the people who would censor Dudamel and his wonderful forces because the don’t like the LEGALLY ELECTED GOVERNMENT of his country, support the racism, torture, ethnic cleansing and other features of the non-Elected Government of the United States. Perhaps its time to come to grips with the fact with the hate mongering and hypocrisies that have often come from “The Overgrown Path” and the rest of the pollution that comes from some of those among us. Art has always had its propagandist that is both banal and evil like Mr. Pliable. I don’t blame James Levine for Abu Gharib prison – why blame Dudamel for what the far right doesn’t like about the Venezuelan government.

  7. Does anyone know what happens to the young musicians once they reach a certain age? Do they continue to tour? Are there any studies of their productive assimilation in society? Do their crime-ridden families or environments change as well?

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