Music

Classical music's greatest political butt-kissers: Dudamel, Gergiev and Rattle

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

On 8 March 2013, Gustavo Dudamel stood by the coffin of the Marxist autocrat Hugo Chavez and conducted the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in the Venezuelan national anthem. He assumed, like everyone else, that the coffin contained a fresh corpse: the president of Venezuela was reported to have died from cancer on 5 March at the age of 58. Not so, it is now claimed. According to his former head of security, Chavez died on 30 December 2012. The news was kept secret while his lieutenants panicked. The funeral — covered with ludicrous sycophancy by the BBC — was, at least in part, a masquerade.

Whatever the truth, Dudamel — who’d recently taken up residence in America as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — had to be there. Foreign correspondents noted admiringly that this was because classical music played such a huge part in the life of Venezuela, thanks to the miracle of El Sistema, the programme of musical education that supposedly turns kids from the slums into world-class musicians. In fact, there’s also an element of masquerade about the Simon Bolivar orchestra: its dazzling players are generally not from the dirt-poor backgrounds described in El Sistema press releases. The dashing Dudamel must know this, but says nothing. The Southbank Centre — which has just announced yet another visit by Dudamel and the Venezuelans — must know this too.

Dudamel would have faced ostracism or worse in his native country if he’d missed the funeral. El Sistema exported pro-Chavez propaganda as well as Mahler symphonies to gullible global audiences. The young maestro was (and remains) a cultural ambassador for corrupt Venezuela, just as Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh were sent abroad to detoxify Soviet Russia.


Perhaps we shouldn’t blame him, or them. No Russian performer or composer could stand up to the Kremlin and survive — with one exception: the uncompromising and wilful pianist Maria Yudina, who converted to Russian Orthodoxy from Judaism and told Stalin she was praying that God would forgive his crimes. He put up with it, amazingly, because he was impressed by her life of self-denial. She gave every penny she earned to the Church. She always wore the same black dress, which Shostakovich (maybe feeling guilty about his own forelock-tugging) cattily suggested she never washed.

But, as I say, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. Gustavo Dudamel knew that a misstep by him could destroy El Sistema and, to his credit, never indulged in the grotesque butt-kissing that Valery Gergiev directs at Putin. Still, Chavez was a monster, albeit a popular one, and moreover we now know that underage musicians climbed Venezuela’s artistic ladder by sleeping with their teachers. Fairly or unfairly, Dudamel is tainted by the system that created him.

Classical musicians in the West face milder versions of Dudamel’s dilemma. ‘Because it’s the most abstract art form, they aren’t as ideological as novelists and playwrights,’ an internationally renowned conductor tells me. ‘Politics isn’t something they’ve thought deeply about. They just slip into the soft-left consensus’ — in other words, the ideology of the artistic and educational establishment that pays their mortgages. There are few composers left in the European Marxist mould of Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze and Cornelius Cardew; Maurizio Pollini — who these days plays the piano with all the dexterity of Les Dawson — seems to have lost his hard-left convictions. Instead, the drift is towards hazy political correctness, especially in British early music circles, whose ‘democratic’ principles lead to some distinctly ropey performances. Even Sir Simon Rattle, New Labour to the tip of his baton, is infected by this ‘hey, guys, we’re all in this together’ ethos. It’s one reason he’s been a disappointment at the Berlin Phil, an orchestra that requires and expects discipline. They’ll get it if Rattle is succeeded by Christian Thielemann, a German nationalist who declared last month that ‘I find it unacceptable that an Arab-born teenager yells into his teacher’s face that he won’t listen to a woman’.

If a British conductor had said that, he’d be pushed off the podium — if not by his colleagues then by bureaucrats. They’re the real problem. The public sector thinks classical music must atone for its elitism by ‘inclusiveness’. Naturally it was taken in by El Sistema, emanating as it did from a socialist paradise in South America. They’ve now set one up in England. Sistema England, admits a recent review of English music education, is a ‘“social action” project which use music as a tool’. It achieves encouraging results — but, to quote my conductor friend, ‘the El Sistema fad is lowering the standards required of young musicians, and also undermining the magnificent tradition of British youth orchestras’.

Then there is Sistema Scotland, which is chaired by Richard Holloway, a socialist ex-bishop with a Wagnerian ego. It aims to transform children’s lives through music — and politics, too, judging by the ultra-nationalist views of some of its supporters. The ‘BIG Project’, inspired by Sistema Scotland, takes part in events devised by Karine Polwart, a folk singer who specialises in Celtic agitprop. All of which is music to the ears of the SNP government, now busily engaged in a quasi-fascist attempt to infuse the arts with its ideology. Not a very British aspiration, you might think. But it does smack of Venezuela.

Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator Australia for less – just $20 for 10 issues


Show comments
  • enemigopublico

    Dudamel will be handsomely rewarded for his collaboration – with a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall to be named after him and built in his home town of Barquisimeto, paid for by a state that cannot currently ensure a supply of toilet paper or basic medicines for its ordinary citizens. Not that this will worry Dudamel, who lives in LA, or his band of highly-paid world-traveller musicians.

    • Jody Taylor

      I saw this conductor with the LAPO in Vienna at the Musikverein in 2011. He was very energetic and seemed to have the general respect of the orchestra.

      Bravo Gustavo!!

      • Curnonsky

        The problem with “Dude’s” conducting is that everything is energetic, over-the-top, lacking in subtlety.

        • Jody Taylor

          Disagree entirely.

    • alejoeisabel

      The issue of toilette paper ”shortages” is manufactured. It is part of the economic sabotage engineered by the economic elites and the United States government. There is massive amounts of subsidized food and household products that are illegally sent to Colombia creating the scarcity.

  • George Anderson

    The Big Project may have been compared to the work of Sistema Scotland whose orchestras are called Big Noise, but there is no connection whatsoever between the two. Sistema Scotland has nothing to do with the Big Project and the Big Project has nothing to do with Sistema Scotland.

    • Jody Taylor

      Whatever it takes to get young people into kunstmusik (legal, that is) is fine by me. Gustavo is doing a great job!

  • Eric Booth

    My goodness, but there is such a load of misinformation in this article, it is hard to know where to start. I will address just two of the points.
    1. “the El Sistema fad is lowering the standards required of young
    musicians, and also undermining the magnificent tradition of British
    youth orchestras.” First, it may well not be a fad, it is just new, and it is not a fad in other countries that started similar work over a decade ago. What the emergence of El Sistema in the UK has done is not to lower performance standards but to lower the social barriers to entry into the youth orchestra world. You no longer have to have the social advantages that have always skewed participation. And in a few more years, let’s just see if an infusion of passionate young players who would otherwise have been excluded, and are now investing lots of time in preparation, lowers or raises the existing standard.
    2. “we now know that underage musicians climbed Venezuela’s artistic ladder by sleeping with their teachers” First, you don’t know that. Second, it is no more true in Venezuela than in any other country, and the leadership in Venezuela is working as hard as the leadership in the UK as elsewhere to reduce this sexually abusive tradition that appears in every country to the shame of every member of the field.

    • nicdisqus

      “and the leadership in Venezuela is working as hard as the leadership in the UK as elsewhere to reduce this sexually abusive “… and how do YOU know this?. Dudamel is a disgrace to Venezuelan musicianship -thanks…… to his political idiocy…. sometimes you have to wait one day in line to get milk in caracas….. Dudamel represents that “great” right?

      • Eric Booth

        Dudamel is responsible for the scarcity of milk in Venezuela? My goodness but you have a high respect for the economic power of musicians.

        • nicdisqus

          oh lord… you guys really skipped class the day they taught the concept behind the word -representation- … read brother—- read… then… go and live in Venezuela for two weeks…… oh man…………….. I really need to see that…. talk to the bbc… maybe they will turn it into a super funny reality show- on how the ignorant foreigner gets to be traded by weight on the Venezuelan streets

      • alejoeisabel

        ”Dudamel is a disgrace to Venezuelan musicianship -thanks…… to his political idiocy…” That is only your opinion which speaks volumes about you. Every musician in the Simon Bolivar Symphony has the equivalent of a $250,000 music education if it translated to EU/US costs. Music lessons costs me $125/hr per child, and I have two. Over two million Venezuelans have participated in El Sistema, and currently there are 650,000 children studying in it. 100% of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are Chavistas, and it would be politically insane for Dudamel to be an anti Chavista.

        • enemigopublico

          “100% of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are Chavistas” – you have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • alejoeisabel

            There may be one or two from the oligarchy in the orchestra, but that is doubtful. This elite orchestra is composed mostly form the poor working class areas of Venezuela not from the elite conservatories like everywhere else. You do not know what you are talking about.

          • enemigopublico

            Oligarchy… honestly… why are you clogging up this discussion with your moronic mix of propaganda and plain invention?

          • Jonathan

            YOU do not know what you are talking about. The last comment gave you away. there have never been elite conservatories in Venezuela, and most members of the SB Orchestra are from the middle class. You are planted here to counteract emerging disappointment in European public opinion with the Sistema propaganda and with the Chavez debacle in Venezuela.

          • nicdisqus

          • Mr Grumpy

            Is he trying to tell us that if you’re not a Chavista you don’t get in?

          • Mc

            Yes, he’s so thick, he doesn’t even realise he’s giving the game away.

        • nicdisqus

          If you can’t command the meaning of the word “represents” you are greatly over-valuing your argumentative gifts— sir

        • elnusa

          Why don’t you come to Venezuela then?

  • spwmojo

    This article reminds me of those from Martin Bernheimer while he was writing music criticism in Los Angeles. Informative, informed, thoughtful, and with a point of view that you are not getting everywhere else. Always worth reading.

    Then, sadly, just like Bernheimer, totally undermined by the author’s unnecessary bitchiness.

    Simon Rattle’s tenure in Berlin has been a “disappointment”? To whom? The orchestra that extended him another 10 years in 2008? The audiences that continue to flock in record numbers? The on-line audiences for the digital concert hall that is revolutionizing the way classical music is consumed?

    The “disappointed” must be a tiny minority.

    Music critics sometimes baffle me.

    • Jody Taylor

      Only ‘sometimes’….mmm, luxury.

  • Ali

    Love this article, I don’t care if a lot of it isn’t really true, it is just so refreshing to read a totally bitchy article that doesn’t pull any punches. Well done, keep it up.

    • alejoeisabel

      You mean an article that sucker punches the innocent? Where is the courage when the real criticism is Dudamel supporting his government that has addressed historical issues of poverty in Venezuela. Did you hear any criticism of Venezuela when the political caste was plunder the oil rents of Venezuela while the majority of people lived in abject poverty?

      • Ali

        I just like magazines which allow their journalists to go off on one from time to time and say what they think. The musical world is very bitchy and full of gossip. This article reflects that to some extent. There are plenty of sycophants out there, and political correctness and fear of being sued has suppressed so many journalists who formerly brought a bit of colour to the world and encouraged debate. There are plenty of people to champion all those mentioned above, plenty of would be hagiographers for musical celebrities. Yet another dull article singing the praises of Dudamel and Rattle et al is not needed. The world is full of musical talent and sometimes a bit of savagery is needed to clear a path through the jungle, which allows new blood to bring something different to the world of music.

      • elnusa

        When Chavez Took power in 1999 Venezuelan oil prices were as low as 7 per barrel. Chavez had it as high as 150, averaging close to 100 in his last 10 years. We recently discovered that until 2008 his people hid about 13 Billion dollars of State money in just one Swiss bank (HSBC- will we ever know how much more they hid in other banks)… Today, we have the highest inflation rate in the world, the second lowest minimum wage in the hemisphere (official this week, when the Government-controlled central bank admitted that the real exchange rate is 170 bolivars per dollar) and our poverty numbers are actually a bit higher than they were in 99 (even according to the official numbers, real numbers are much higher). All this after 15 years of the most generous oil boom we’ll never see again.
        Talking about plunder?
        These guys only merit is having proved that propaganda and lobbying work very well, enough to make a clepto-tyranny look as a democratic government.

        • alejoeisabel

          thank you for sharing the opinion of the oligarchy. Venezuela has eliminated the scourge of illiteracy and extreme poverty. It benefits from free health care thank to the solidarity of the Cuban government. Hunger has been completely eliminated for the fist time. Go to Colombia or Mexico to find extreme hunger and poverty…..that has ended in Venezuela, and is the reason the “opposition” can never get elected because the poor do not want the rich back in power.

          • Jonathan

            Have you been there? If what you say is true, why the crime and the migration out of the country?

        • rtj1211

          Perhaps the question to ask is whether the Venezuelan people have ‘got that 13 billion dollars back from that Swiss Bank’ or not??

          Perhaps it’s also worth asking in whose name(s) that money was lodged? Was it the Venezuelan treasury or individual Government officials??

          If the $13bn is now back in Venezuela’s hands, then all’s well that ended well…..keep on searching for any more though!

      • Mc

        “Where is the courage when the real criticism is Dudamel supporting his government that has addressed historical issues of poverty in Venezuela.”

        I can see that you would just love living in the Venezuelan workers’ paradise. Its government has so comprehensively “addressed historical issues of poverty” that one can’t even s*it in comfort anymore because there’s a shortage of everything, including toilet paper. But I’m guessing you’ll say it’s all lies spread by America and that in fact everyone is now living in such luxurious splendor that they eat off solid gold plates.

        • alejoeisabel

          I am so sorry that you suffer so much discomfort when you use the toilet. Frankly, nobody cares about your toilet issues. I care about hunger issues that have been resolved and that you care little about. How about the poor in Colombia who have no money to even buy food much less toilet paper. Nobody cares about cry babies.

      • jeffersonian

        Someone’s been drinking the Chavez kool-aid.

  • David Nice

    To judge from Ali’s comment, the readership is as twisted as the writer. Well done, Spectator, two grotesque articles in one week. And I’m not an uncritical Rattle admirer either, but who says he’s lacked discipline?

  • Monkish

    Christian Thielemann sounds like a top guy 😉

    • alejoeisabel

      I understand that the musicians have personality issues with him.

      • Jody Taylor

        You have to HAVE a personality to have a ‘personality issue’!! LOL

        • alejoeisabel

          The issue is that Thielemann is arrogant and dictatorial, and the musicians don’t like it. My attempt to dissemble did not succeed with you.

          • Jody Taylor

            That’s right; I don’t like dissembling.

            The orchestras (Dresden Staatskapelle and Berliners) make great music with Thielemann at the helm, despite his attitudes. I’m a bit wary of this anyway – people these days have ultra-grievances and, like children, they throw a hissy fit when something doesn’t go their way. If the society wasn’t so neurotic and inclined towards victimhood in all its manifestations to begin with I’d start to believe the rumours.

          • Mr Grumpy

            Often the best sort. If the musicians don’t like it they know what they can do.

    • Jody Taylor

      A critic once gave him a savaging suggesting his hair wasn’t a faction of a cm out of place and the Nazis would have liked that. It’s amazing that these old cliches from the past are still trotted out when somebody has nothing better to say.

  • alejoeisabel

    This is a dishonest article made to discredit very talented musicians for the imprudence of supporting their governments whom the United States and its vassal intend to destroy. Dudamel’s crime is that he supports his country, Venezuela, who refuses to be a vassal of the Untied States. It is sad that The Spectator sides with the forces of domination and war. Very sad.

    • Alberto Lossada

      There you are, It is clear now that your “diisinformation” is politically convenient for you. Venezuela refuses to be a vassal of the U. S. but has become a slave vassal of Cuba. Nothing to add…

      • alejoeisabel

        You are grossly misinformed. Cuba has sent 35,000 doctors and health professionals to work where the elite Venezuelan doctors don’t want to work and would rather be plastic surgeons for the “beautiful” elite instead of treating the poor. Cuban doctors are the best in Venezuela saving and treating millions of Venezuelans including the rich oligarchs. Try getting free health care from US doctors…it wouldn’t happen.

        • Alberto Lossada

          Sorry, but I am venezuelan AND live in Venezuela. Try to find a band.aid, aspirin, or any kind of medicine in a public hospital and THEN call me misinformed. I simply don’t play the game according to government rules, but rather by what I see and can confiirm with my own eyes. I wish our government members would go to public hospitals in times of need, but no, they rather frequent private ones or go elsewhere. And doctors DO want to work, but obviously not for the miserly salaries offered to health professionals (nurses included). We all have families- And please, cunam doctors ARE NOT the best in Venezuela or, for that matter, in many countries. There are stacks of stories of malpractice and bad judgement that are not acted upon by the authorities because Cuba is a “revoutionary” country. Venezuelan doctors, fyi, are very respected in the medical profession world.wide. Please take the trouble to know what you’re talking about before letting out mere propaganda

          • Jody Taylor

            And this has precisely what to do with Gustavo Dudamel?

      • Jody Taylor

        Correct.

  • DBoj

    Although Rattle may not be the German hero that Karajan or Furtwangler were, to call his tenure a disappointment is quite narrow minded. Rattle has expanded the orchestra’s repertory immensely. If Thielemann gets the job in 2018, you can say goodbye to the most capable and versatile orchestra in the world, currently, the Berlin Philharmonic.

    On one hand, I’d love to hear an orchestra like Berlin perform more of their own German repertory, but on the other, I fear that if Thielemann is selected, music of the last 30 years will not exist in his programming.

    My money is on Alan Gilbert in 2019, even if it’s a long shot.

    • Jody Taylor

      I’ve heard both Thielemann (Dresden Staatskapelle) and Gilbert (NYPO) in Vienna in 2011 and both were tremendous. Thielemann won’t get the gig in NY because of his naked anti-semitism.

      • alejoeisabel

        He may have criticized Zionism and Israel for its abundant crimes against an occupied people in Palestine. Do you suggest that one must support Israeli and Zionist crimes to get a job?

        • Jody Taylor

          That’s not what I said. Germans have form and criticizing Jews isn’t a good idea. (I thought you knew that.) And you can call them “zionist crimes” if it makes you feel better about yourself.

          • alejoeisabel

            The Palestinians defend themselves against occupation the best way they can. Do you suggest that the Palestinians submit to Zionist occupation and subjugation? The Zionist bombs that obliterate filled-to-capacity bomb shelters with mostly women and children are certainly not ”Fairy floss”.

  • reytrombetta

    Damian Thompson drank Geoff Baker’s kool-aid and he now regurgitates Baker’s allegations like if they were facts. Neither Baker nor Thompson have enough information about the social demographics of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra as to make any valid statements about the players. And they surely have no evidence of sexual abuse, but that does not stop them from slinging all the mud they can.

    Mr Thompson goes a step further, simply letting go of any concern for the truth, when he says that El Sistema emanated from “a socialist paradise”. 40 years ago, when El Sistema was founded, Venezuela was nowhere near socialism. Since then, El Sistema has been supported by nine administrations. And in the 16 years of Chavez/Maduro government, it has also been supported by opposition governors and mayors (including Henrique Capriles the governor of Miranda who ran for president against Chavez and Maduro, and Leopoldo Lopez, the former mayor of Chacao that is now a political prisoner in Venezuela). El Sistema has also received considerable funding from Empresas Polar, the most powerful business group in Venezuela, which is under constant attack by Maduro’s government and has no interest in supporting a “socialist” project. So why is Venezuela’s opposition supporting this “pro-Chavez propaganda” programme? Or could it be that Mr Thompson has no idea of what he is talking about?

    One last thing, Thompson calls Chávez “a monster”. I never supported Chávez and I hope that Maduro ends up in prison [disclaimer: I worked for Leopoldo López in 2000 as his Comms Director, so I am on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the socialists]. But how exactly was Chávez a monster? He was authoritarian, he eroded the rule of law and democracy, he lied and manipulated people, he was corrupt… but really, a monster? How many people did he have killed while in power? To date the count is zero. Mr Thompson, of course, would have no idea because he knows nothing about Venezuela. But still he writes with such authority!

    • alejoeisabel

      Leopoldo Lopez incited riots with led to the deaths of scores of people many of whom were police. Leopoldo Lopez’ mobs burned schools and medical clinics. Many Cuban doctors who came to save lives treating the poor in Venezuela, were themselves targeted to be murdered by Leopoldo Lopez’ thugs. Many of these thugs were narco gangs from Colombia paid for by the Venezuelan opposition and oligarchy to engage in murder of police and false flag operations. Leopoldo Lopez is a criminal and is responsible of all of the deaths.

  • alejoeisabel

    There are many errors in this article. Damian Thompson has done an enormous disservice to the truth and the readers. First, he states that the president of Venezuela is an autocrat. This is patently untrue. He was a very popular elected official who for the first time in oil rich history of Venezuela, he recovered the peoples wealth, and implemented a social development plan that for the first time in Venezuelan history. He implemented free and high quality health care for all. He gave away to the poorest one million houses…free. He eliminated tuition for university students and increase enrollment by 100%. Chavez increased the participation of poor children in free music education where today more than 650,000 children get free and high quality music education and its corresponding youth orchestras. To refer President Chavez as a dictator is wrong and racist. If anything Maestro Dudamel shows courage to stand up to the enormous pressure to betray his country for Untied States interests. That would be sad.

    • Curnonsky

      Maestro Dudamel seems to be standing up for his country from a convenient distance since he lives very comfortably in Los Angeles, some ways removed from the destitute, murder-ridden communist hellhole of Caracas.

      • alejoeisabel

        You are grossly misinformed. Venezuela has one of the highest Happiness Indexes in the world..Look it up yourself. Don’t believe everything that you read in the capitalist press.

        • Jody Taylor

          We don’t, that’s why we won’t look at the (published) Happiness Index.

      • Jody Taylor

        It’s the standard posture of the dissident. Remember Gore Vidal’s vicious attacks on the USA from the luxury of the Capri coast in Italy. Brave, ha?

        • post_x_it

          The committed communist Bertolt Brecht spent WWII in considerable comfort in Southern California whilst taking pot shots at fascist Europe.

    • The Masked Marvel

      That was to distract you while he ran the country into the ground and pocketed over $1 billion in the process. Sucker.

    • Alberto Lossada

      How do you “eliminate” something that doesn’t exist? Public universities have ALWAYS been tuition-free in Venezuela. You’re either very disinformed or very conveniently so for political purposes

      • alejoeisabel

        University enrollment has historically been the domain of the elite. With the advent of the Bolivarian Revolution the scourge of ignorance and illiteracy has been eliminated. A new medical school has been established for the purpose of creating more doctors dedicated to public health that is accessible to the poor and of the highest quality. University attendance has increased by a factor of four…very impressive.

        • Alberto Lossada

          It’s self defeating to try to discuss with anyone who only offers the government’s populist rhetoric snd not a reasonable true position. Feed that information to the ducks,

        • Jonathan

          Have yo ever been there? You write such nonsense…

  • Dukeofplazatoro

    You are unfairly hard on Svyatoslav Richter.

    His father was organist of the Lutheran Church in Odessa, which managed to continue working after the Revolution until the German invasion in 1941. Because of this and because of his German origin, he was executed by the Soviets in 1941 on false charges of espionage. With that kind of background you would expect him not to go out of his way to upset the authorities. Besides which, I think his performances speak for themselves and have nothing to do with detoxifying anything.

  • spangletoff

    Wow! Great philippic!

  • WimsThePhoenix

    No mention of the Socialist bum-kissers who write tuneless crap for the BBC Proms each year because anything that carries a tune you can whistle is anathema to the slimeballs in floppy bow ties who determine what is, and is not, art.

    The only decent orchestral new music nowadays is composed for cinema.

  • christof

    Is there room for a personal musical comment in the middle of this political bickering. I love the enthusiasm that goes with the great sound of Rattle and Dudamel whereas the sound of Thielman while good is produced in such a boring and undemonstrative fashion- real old style Germanic woodeness and as for a smile !! Also in passing- Rattle disappointing ?? Never.

  • jeffersonian

    “They’ll get it if Rattle is succeeded by Christian Thielemann, a German nationalist who declared last month that ‘I find it unacceptable that an Arab-born teenager yells into his teacher’s face that he won’t listen to a woman’.”

    I like Herr Thielemann already.

Close