This week, Gustavo Dudamel told the Los Angeles Times that he is 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". The reason he had to come up with this somewhat tortuous formulation (aren't most politicians, who theoretically serve the public interest, "acting for everybody" rather than their own interests; and aren't artists essentially and inevitably much more self-interested than public servants?) is that he's become drawn into the "toxic oasis" of Venezuela's increasingly volatile and violent politics, as protests against Nicolas Maduro's government have led to the deaths of six people over the last week. That phrase, "toxic oasis", comes from Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who called on Dudamel to speak out against the regime. She wants vocal action against what she sees as the "organised thuggery" of Venezuela's current situation, instead of artists tacitly supporting it by continuing to play concerts that celebrate the country's young musicians.
Dudamel's response, to cast himself as a musician who is bringing his country's youth together in his role as the most famous figurehead of Venezuela's musical education programme, is pretty well the only one open to him. He has a point. At the same time as the Venezuelan protests, Dudamel was conducting a concert to celebrate the 39th year of El Sistema, the country's orchestral education programme. Over almost four decades, the programme has weathered the Chavez era, as well as the more economically liberal governments that came before him.
But it's not, alas, that simple. Precisely because of its success, El Sistema is used as a political tool by Venezuela within and without its borders. At concerts around the world, the chants after a concert by El Sistema's flagship SimÓn BolÍvar Symphony Orchestra were "Viva Chavez", when that was apposite, as much as "Viva Venezuela". Dudamel conducted at Chavez's funeral, and there are plans to build a new, Frank Gehry-designed concert hall in Dudamel's honour in his hometown, Barquisimeto (Gehry was at Dudamel's concerts last week, and met Maduro to discuss the proposal on Friday).
That's a big problem for Dudamel, because instead of El Sistema being seen simply as a musical movement that can speak for "everybody", as he wants it to, he and the programme are perceived as partisan in the debate, inevitably tied to the government which has supported them so much over the last 15 years, rather than also speaking for those who support Maduro's political opponents.
Now, the opposition parties in Venezuela have also said that they would continue to support El Sistema, which ought to help Dudamel in the long term. But the issue he faces is comparable to that of Valery Gergiev and his close ties to the Putin regime. The one thing Dudamel and Gergiev apparently can't do is speak out against their government, because that would risk cutting off the support for their musical empire, in Russia, and the dynasty of music education in Venezuela. Dudamel and Gergiev – who are both politically astute – think there's a bigger battle to be won than satisfying short-term calls to protest their government's policies, no matter how "toxic" those appear to the outside world.
The question for Dudamel, however, is where he draws the line on what he's able to tolerate from his political masters in Venezuela. If he's true to his essential ethos that music is independent of whatever government is in charge, he ought to feel he can speak freely and critically to power as well as effectively be a tacit observer of what's happening in his country (rather than just coming up with platitudes like "everything I do is against violence and radicalism", which is an interesting choice of words). To be against political, and possibly aesthetic, "radicalism" is a rather problematic position for a conductor to take. What does Dudamel do with those composers who were genuine political as well as creative "radicals", including John Cage, Luigi Nono, or Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and many others? Maybe it's simple after all: he hasn't, to my knowledge, performed their work.
For all its problems, Venezuela is a democracy in which free speech is, supposedly, supported. It may be that Dudamel has not crossed his personal line in the sand in the current situation. But he might do so in the coming weeks and months in Venezuela, should the political and economic climate continue to deteriorate. Then Dudamel will face an even sterner test than what he has been through in the last couple of weeks: to speak out, or to remain silent.