The hottest thing in classical music right now, by a country mile, is 26-year old Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who made his NY Phil debut a couple of nights ago. I couldn't make it, although I loved his account of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra at Carnegie just a few weeks ago, and if you haven't yet seen that jaw-dropping video of Dudamel conducting the Mambo from West Side Story from the BBC Proms, you must. Dudamel is a product of the remarkable state-sponsored music education program called El Sistema, which enrolls more than 250,000 Venezuelan youths -- "Venezuela already has more schoolchildren in orchestras than on soccer teams."
Two good writeups of that hit -- one from Tony Tommasini in the NYT, and one from Peter Matthews at Feast of Music, who might just have been the only person in the audience at Avery Fisher Hall who had also attended a Todd P.-curated show the night before. Both reviews are notable for being among the few accounts of a Dudamel appearance that do not include a paragraph or two of hand-wringing about how the young conductor is morally compromised for not publicly denouncing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.
This is, as you may know, a bit of a hot topic in the classical sphere. In in his New Yorker column, Alex Ross writes "I wondered about the wisdom of putting on such a patriotic display at a time when other Venezuelan students have been protesting Hugo Chávez’s increasingly anti-democratic regime," and in a follow-up post on his blog, entitled "The Venezuela Problem," he adds: "What disturbs me [...] is that when politicians throw money at music, some in the classical business tend not to scrutinize the politics too closely."
Steve Smith, in reference to Chávez not being mentioned in a pre-concert discussion at Carnegie, writes:
[José Antonio] Abreu [founder of El Sistema], whose achievements in Venezuela unquestionably deserve respect, went on to say that similar programs were being launched in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, and told the audience that he had urged the Carnegie Hall board to start presenting its artists in Venezuela.
Not that I wanted [Ara] Guzelimian [host of the chat] to get all Lee Bollinger here, but I did hope that some political context might be provided for the remarkable progress -- on both artistic and humanitarian levels -- that "El Sistema" has caused in Venezuela.
Instead, this was something like Dumbledore talking about opening Hogwarts franchises all over the world -- while He Who Must Not Be Named simply wasn't.
Neither Alex nor Steve take Dudamel himself to task for being insufficiently anti-Chávez, but Bob Shingleton (aka Pliable) of On An Overgrown Path has been far more vocal and persistent in his criticism. In this post, he writes: "The two photos show Venezuelan riot police facing university students during 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?"
Let me be clear -- I am not a fan of Chávez. Although democratically elected, his administration has taken a decidedly authoritarian turn, and people are right to be troubled. If Dudamel were to use his newfound international celebrity to take a strong public stance against Chávez's antidemocratic policies, I would certainly welcome it.
But I am also troubled by what I see as a certain double standard. It seems to me that many in the classical blogosphere are following the lead of conservative pundits in vastly inflating both Chávez's importance in the world and the extent of his antidemocratic activities. This led me to make some intemperate comments on certain threads, but I am frustrated by what looks an awful lot like hypocrisy.
I am not arguing that Hugo Chávez is a good guy. He is not. But compared to, say, Vladimir Putin, he's chump change:
Voting starts in Russian election
Polling stations have opened in the Russian capital, Moscow, as the country continues to vote in general elections over 22 hours across 11 time zones.
Eleven parties are competing for places in the lower house, the Duma - though it is not clear how many will secure the 7% needed to qualify for seats.
President Vladimir Putin's party is predicted to win, boosting his bid to retain power after leaving the Kremlin.
Opposition parties have accused the government of stifling their campaigns and of intimidation.
Independent monitors say their attempts to observe the poll have been hampered.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has abandoned its plans to send a big team of election observers to Russia after accusing the Russian government of imposing unacceptable restrictions and of deliberately delaying the issuing of visas. Russia has denied the claims.
Only a much smaller group of MPs from the OSCE's parliamentary assembly will be in attendance.
That means just 400 foreign monitors will cover 95,000 polling stations.
The largest party in the Duma going into the elections is United Russia, and it will be hoping to maintain its dominance against the challenge from the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Yabloko party and others.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is at the top of the United Russia party list - opening the possibility that he could keep a grip on power from parliament even after stepping down as president next year.
During the run-up to the election, demonstrations were forbidden, and opposition coalition leader (and former World Chess Champion) Garry Kasparov was jailed for five days for his role in an anti-Putin rally. He has called the election a "farce."
But the biggest boost, says Gergiev, "comes from the sense of stability which Putin immediately brought to the country. We worked together in the most difficult years. Today the country is in better shape […]."
In this same article, we learn that Putin was personally responsible for directing $184 million worth of state funds towards the renovation of the orchestra's home, the Kirov-Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Or how about this charming personal detail, gleaned from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's website:
He [Gergiev] reputedly has a direct line to Russian president Vladimir Putin (a fan of Gergiev's), and he and Putin are godfathers to each other's children.
Have any of the critics and bloggers writing about the Kirov Orchestra's current tour mentioned how they are troubled by Gergiev's "direct line" to Putin? (Especially given the farce of a Russian election currently underway?) Has anyone asserted: "Supporting [Gergiev], his [Kirov] orchestra, and other [Russian] cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship"?
I do not like to play the "if you are outraged about this, why aren't you outraged about that" game. But in this case, the parallel is too clear and the double standard too glaring to let pass without comment.
UPDATE: I did not know, at the time I wrote this, that Leterland proprietor David Adler had recently posted on both Gergiev/Kirov and the Dudamel-Chávez question. He has since weighed in in the comments to this post and on his own blog -- as always, David's thoughts are well worth reading.
Also -- I mentioned this in the comments, but just so nobody gets the wrong idea: It was certainly not my intention to single out Alex Ross or Steve Smith for opprobrium! The passages I quoted from Alex and Steve are, taken by themselves, entirely reasonable. But in order to point out the institutional double standard, which is hardly the fault of any one individual, I needed to pull some representative quotes from someone. I could have citied any number of critics, but I chose Alex and Steve precisely because (I hope!) they both understand that I have tremendous respect for their work and that no personal slight is intended.
UPDATE 4: MK (Tonic Blotter) has a humane and insightful take:
Dudamel is no Furtwängler or Shostakovich because Chávez is no Hitler or Stalin. But the basic choice is the same: Either: 1. confront the regime and risk retaliation which may force you into exile or worse, which will cause you to lose all influence at home and risk the undoing of all your previous efforts; or 2. find a way to deal with the system so that you can build something that will outlast the regime.
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