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An unhappy tune in Venezuela

Do dooo doo-doo. Right! Do you remember David Cameron’s happy little hum after announcing his resignation? A Venezuelan composer and pianist, Gabriela Montero, improvised upon that theme in the Baroque style. ‘Then, adding humour to creativity,’ reports the Times, ‘she closes the keyboard-lid with a crisp “right!” — exactly as the former prime minister did as he closed his front door.’

Sadly the rest of the article is not so jolly.

Montero has expressed her views in music as well as on social media. Five years ago she poured her vitriol into an astonishingly explosive 13-minute composition for piano and orchestra, significantly called Ex Patria. Described by her as an “unapologetic vision of Venezuela’s accelerating civic collapse and moral decay”, it comes across as a vivid musical portrait of a traumatised country. The BBC should have had the courage to ask her to play it at the Proms rather than Grieg’s anodyne Piano Concerto.

Last year there were nearly 28,000 murder victims and those are just the reported ones
“You know, it’s even worse now,” she says. “I wrote Ex Patria in 2011 and dedicated it to the 19,336 people who were murdered in Venezuela that year. Last year there were close to 28,000 victims, and those are just the reported ones. Imagine how many deaths are unrecorded. Then you will understand that, unfortunately, Ex Patria will have a long life. I always hoped that one day I could put it away and never play it again because I wrote it as a cry of anguish during the darkest times for Venezuela, but that day seems far away.”


Since composing Ex Patria, Montero’s website and live performances have become rallying-points for Venezuela’s expatriate dissidents. “Yes, the concerts are far more than musical events now,” she affirms. “So many Venezuelans come and speak to me afterwards about their children who have been murdered, or their parents who have been kidnapped, or their homes that have been taken away, or their lives fractured by forced exile. Even my Facebook page has become a pharmacy directory for people in Venezuela who are desperate to get medicine.”

Montero will not be the only Venezuelan musician at the Proms. A separate Times article says,

He is simply The Dude, arguably the best-known conductor in the world. The superstar product of the famed Venezuelan music project El Sistema, his appeal crosses continents, generations and even genres: a close friend of Chris Martin, he appeared with Coldplay at the Super Bowl half-time concert.

Gustavo Dudamel, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, can seemingly do no wrong.

However, the 35-year-old star, who once conducted what was described as “the greatest Prom of all time”, has come under blistering attack from a fellow Venezuelan musician, the pianist Gabriela Montero.

She has denounced him in the strongest possible terms in an interview with The Times for failing to speak out about the economic collapse facing their home country, where inflation is running at 200 per cent and people cross the border into Colombia just to buy household necessities.

“I don’t care how well he conducts,” Montero said of Dudamel, who has failed to dissociate himself from what is happening in Venezuela. “What he has and hasn’t done as a human being invalidates everything else.”

Having read this I was on fire with sympathy for Montero and anger at Dudamel. Yet Dudamel does have a defence. It is scarcely heroic yet I find it hard to condemn, given that I have never lived under anything but a liberal regime. It’s just the usual thing – the usual justification for collaboration with the powerful offered by artists in somewhat repressive regimes. That is, artists of around the average level of courage among humans living in regimes of around the average level of badness in history.

A product of El Sistema, the state-funded music project that mentors 300,000 children at a time, many of them from the country’s poorest slums, Dudamel is the most successful individual to have emerged from the programme.

In The Los Angeles Times last September he wrote: “To those who believe I have been silent too long, I say this: do not mistake my lack of political posturing for a lack of compassion or beliefs. If I aligned myself with one political philosophy or another then, by extension, I could also politicise El Sistema. That might turn a revered and successful program into a political punching bag and make it much more vulnerable to political whims.”

Brian Micklethwait has twice speculated on this blog that repression is good for music, citing the example of Shostakovich dodging the murderous caprice of Stalin. I have speculated that, while a morally dubious amount of familial pressure may be often be applied to children to create a classical musician, El Sistema seems no more coercive than most other musical education. Venezuela itself is a remarkably clear demonstration of how socialism turns an up-and-coming country into a dump, but comes far down the list of tyrannies of the world. If (piling impossibility upon impossibility) I were Venezuelan and a great, or at least very good, musician which would I be, a Montero or a Dudamel? Which ought I to be? Is the answer different if I were citizen of the democidal Soviet Union rather than Chavista Venezuela and/or an indisputably great composer, like Shostakovich?

18 comments to An unhappy tune in Venezuela

  • Alisa

    Am I understanding correctly that Montero left her homeland, whereas Dudamel did not? Because that could make all the difference in their attitudes and public expressions.

  • Paul Marks

    I remember the BBC pretending (even at the Proms) that classical music was spread among ordinary people in Venezuela by the socialist government – actually it goes back long before the present regime.

    As for the economic collapse of Venezuela it is supposedly due to “low oil prices” or (at worst) “mismanagement”. The idea that socialism (for example government setting prices) might be to blame – this idea is forbidden in “mainstream” circles – which means that we will, eventually, end up like Venezuela.

    Look at the university students supporting “Social Justice” and watching television shows and films where the baddies are always “the rich” or “Big Business” – these students are the future.

  • In an imperfect world, there is always an abstract case for concentrating on one area where you think you can do some finite good. This particularly applies when it is something already existing (El Systema was founded in 1975, well before Chavez took power). As Natalie remarks, such a proceeding will be open to charges of being ‘unheroic’ or personally profitable. If we assume the best we can for Dudamel – that he has told no lies and not explicitly sponsored the regime (this seems unlikely to be literally true but he might have kept it to some minimum) – then the question is not how he should have behaved in the early 90s but when does “telling no lies” become indisputable complicity?

    One answer is implied by the quote: that El Sistema is “a state-funded music project that mentors 300,000 children at a time, many of them from the country’s poorest slums,” Today, a number of children from “the country’s poorest slums must find their music studies hampered by lack of food, others by their parents or themselves being among the murdered, etc. Statistically, I’d have thought El Systema’s most recent annual report either mentions these or is complicit. (A very quick search did not find any report; the relevant articles are behind paywalls.) Of course, if otherwise-starving children get a meal at their lessons, that would be another case.

    Another answer is implied by Hannah Arendt’s story of someone she knew in early 30s Germany. He chose to abandon a promising career and earn (less) as an industrial worker “rather than take on himself the ‘little formality’ of joining the Nazi party.” Dudamel is in the USA. Must El Systema managers in Venezuela join the party, or fund it, or praise it?

  • John Galt III

    After 700 years of learning how not to run a country under Islam, the Spanish and Portuguese, like the English went in search of new lands in the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese became conquistadors; looting, stealing, raping, killing and making slaves of the indigenous peoples except for British Honduras and Costa Rica. Then unlike North America, that took in 300,000 slaves, the Spanish and Portuguese imported 6,500,000 West African Slaves.

    Canada and the US were “colonized” mostly by individual settlers, who just wanted out of Europe to make their own way. (5) French and Indian Wars perpetrated by the Europeans in N.A. did not help matters with the locals as in each war the European powers allied themselves with the “Native Americans” and urged them to kill, rape and take women as slaves among the settlers, who at least tried to get along with the locals. Those (5) wars instilled a hatred of Indians among the settlers forever. Nevertheless, the US and Canada models worked a hell of better than Latin America.

    This is not what you read in Canadian and US government school social studies, but it is in fact what happened. Venezuela is just another failed state in Latin America following a pattern of hundreds of years of failure brought on by the failed Iberian Muslim model. The Spanish and Portuguese did to the New World what the Muslims had done to them. As a Spanish friend of mine aptly put it, “We gave them a language and a religion and in exchange stole everything we could and mistreated the natives horribly.”

  • Laird

    I would align myself with Montero. Dudamel’s “justification” for his silence is in fact mere facile rationalization. He is safe in the US (unlike those such as Shostakovich, who was unable to leave the Soviet Union and escape Stalin’s tyranny). Any criticism by him of the Venezuelan socialist regime poses no risk to El Sistema; it’s certainly not going to turn it “into a political punching bag.” His stance on this is rank cowardice.

  • Alisa

    He is safe in the US (unlike those such as Shostakovich, who was unable to leave the Soviet Union and escape Stalin’s tyranny)

    OK, that answers my question. However and on second thought, is his family also with him, or did he leave any close family members behind?

  • Laird

    By the way, I very much enjoyed Montero’s riff on Cameron’s theme; it’s a thoroughly competent contrapuntal treatment, and very much in the Baroque style (even to the typical “Picardy third” final chord, which I have always despised!). But I have trouble believing that it was truly “improvised”; it’s too well realized. Surely she at least sketched out her plan before recording this.

  • Laird

    Alisa, I don’t know if he has any family still there, and if he does and fears for their safety it’s certainly a rational basis for treading lightly. But my criticism was over the justification he actually offered, which I find risible.

  • Alisa

    Laird, you mean this?

    “To those who believe I have been silent too long, I say this: do not mistake my lack of political posturing for a lack of compassion or beliefs. If I aligned myself with one political philosophy or another then, by extension, I could also politicise El Sistema. That might turn a revered and successful program into a political punching bag and make it much more vulnerable to political whims.”

    I don’t know, to me it actually sounds like he is saying ‘I have a lot to say, but I am not at liberty to say it’. I could be wrong, of course, and be reading too much into it – but I’d still be cautious before I’d jump to conclusions and call it ‘risible’. We really have no way of knowing with such regimes.

  • Laird

    Yes, I mean precisely that, specifically the last sentence. Utter nonsense, and a facile rationalization for cowardice.

  • Alisa

    Well Laird, you think you know – which is your prerogative, but I don’t. I do know following some googling that he’s married to another Venezuelan celebrity, and they have a 3-year-old son in LA. His wife has filed for divorce in March of last year, demanding custody of their son. Then suddenly in last September the father comes out with the pronouncement you found so objectionable. Like I said, I’m not as certain as you are. Both of them are still employed by the Venezuealan government: he is still a conductor for a Venezuelan orchestra, and she works for a notable Venezuelan newspaper, as well as on all sorts of arts projects in their home country. So that pronouncement may well have to do with his actual positive feelings about that regime, or it may just as well have to do with his cowardice as you suggest, or it may have to do with his wife’s manipulations regarding the custody of their son (something all too common, as I’m sure you’ll agree). So I’ll reserve my judgment until I know more, if at all – but YMMV.

  • Snorri Godhi

    This is just speculation, but it is possible that Dudamel (whose quote i find incomprehensible btw) is not so much worried about the Venezuelan regime, but about his standing in his adoptive country. He might reasonably fear that a lynch mob of American SJWs will make him lose his (American) job if he says anything negative about socialism.

    I have no comment on Shostakovich, except that his music is too modern for my taste. However I’d like to mention a few musicians who took a stand against tyranny, even if all what i know is hearsay.

    Mstislav Rostropovich is the first to come to mind, and mention must also be made of Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrach, for refusing to play with a substitute when the Commies tried to prevent Rostropovich from playing, because of his political activities. (And let’s be honest, who could substitute for Rostropovich??)

    Earlier than that, Erich Kleiber, one of the greatest conductors of his time (and father of arguably the greatest conductor of the xx century), left a good position in Berlin because he had been forbidden to conduct Jewish music.

    In the same period, Arturo Toscanini left Italy because of a sudden attack of anti-fascism — though it seems that Toscanini on the podium made Mussolini look laid-back by comparison.

    Going back to the Cold War, Kurt Masur had been quietly conducting one of the greatest orchestras of the world in Leipzig, until a street musician was arrested: that was too much for him, and he turned against the regime.

  • Alisa

    He might reasonably fear that a lynch mob of American SJWs will make him lose his (American) job if he says anything negative about socialism.

    That too. BTW, none of the possibilities suggested so far seem mutually exclusive.

  • Laird

    Alisa, those are all plausible reasons for his silence. My objection is merely to the one he chose to proffer as his sole excuse.

    Snorri, good comment (except that, personally, I very much like Shostakovich). To each his own.

  • Alisa

    Laird, like Snorri I found the quote incomprehensible – which is exactly what leads me to suspect all kinds of things not readily apparent.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Laird: your comment @6:04pm shows that you know much more about music than i do, which might be why you can better appreciate Shostakovich. All what i can say is that i don’t know much about music, but i know what i like. (That changes with time, too: i used to be indifferent to Bruckner.)

  • Laird

    Snorri, what you like is all that really matters. We all have our preferences. (FWIW, I have a conservatory background, so I’ve studied this stuff pretty deeply.)

  • Alisa

    According to this article, we now know the name of the genius behind the system lovingly referred to as Chavismo.