CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Classical music wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel is facing the heat in his native Venezuela for not speaking out against embattled President Nicolas Maduro while holding a series of high-profile concerts here this week.
Dudamel, the 33-year-old musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on Wednesday led a government-funded youth ensemble in a commemorative concert in downtown Caracas blocks away from where a student was killed hours earlier in anti-government protests. More concerts to celebrate the 39th anniversary of Venezuela's El Sistema musical education program are scheduled this weekend, and Maduro is to meet Friday with American architect Frank Gehry to review plans for a concert hall being built in Dudamel's honor.
Although the maestro has not explicitly backed Maduro's government, some say that his silence implies support and that Dudamel has ignored an opportunity to take a moral stand. Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister, said Dudamel has diminished his genius by failing to use his wealth and fame to speak out against the current government.
"He's a musical giant but a moral midget," said Hausmann, who teaches economics at Harvard University. The conductor's personal manager and publicist did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the growing criticism.
Dudamel's defenders say El Sistema's longevity is proof of its nonpartisan social mission, which has been replicated with great fanfare by other countries around the world. It's one of the few Venezuelan institutions to overcome the nation's deep-seated political divisions, having been embraced by authorities during 15 years of socialist rule as well as by more market-friendly governments before it.
The program currently connects about 400,000 mostly poor Venezuelan children with classical music, and Dudamel is one of its most famous proteges. But his globe-trotting promotion of the program, whose funding comes from Venezuela's presidency, has increasingly become the subject of debate as Maduro has cracked down on opponents and the media, violent crime skyrockets and the economy plunges into crisis.
Pianist Gabriela Montero, perhaps the best-known Venezuelan virtuoso after Dudamel, chastised the conductor in a public letter she posted this week on Facebook and other social media for not speaking out against what she considers to be Maduro's abuse of power.
"Gustavo, you are right to focus your unique creative energy on the beautiful flower of music and youth," wrote Montero, who recently made a video recording of Venezuela's national anthem played in a plaintive minor key to draw attention to the nation's hardships. "But you are simply wrong to ignore the toxic oasis in which that flower stands alone, and on the brink of withering and dying, subsumed as it will be by the stench that surrounds it."
Dudamel, in a written response sent to news media Thursday, said he was saddened by the events a day earlier. However, he didn't join human rights groups in Venezuela and abroad in calling on the government to fully investigate the role of security forces and government supporters in the violent clashes with student demonstrators that killed three people and wounded dozens more.
"With our music and our instruments in our hands, we want to say a rotund 'no' to violence and overwhelming 'yes' to peace," Dudamel said. He didn't immediately respond to a request sent by the AP to El Sistema for further comment on his statement.
Even as Dudamel's international career has skyrocketed, he hasn't forgotten his roots. He directs several concerts every year in Caracas, recently toured Paris and the Middle East with El Sistema's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and is preparing the ensemble for an upcoming residency in Los Angeles. He also conducted musicians during the funeral last March of President Hugo Chavez.
Maduro is to meet Friday with Gehry, who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall that's home to the LA Philharmonic, and review plans for a performance and educational space being built in Dudamel's honor in the conductor's hometown of Barquisimeto.
Hausmann, the former Venezuelan official, said Dudamel's artistic freedom is almost unparalleled in the world of classical music, unlike Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose artistic freedom was clipped by a dependence on a totalitarian regime under Josef Stalin.
"I'm disappointed because great talents like Gustavo also have great responsibilities," Hausmann said. "If he wanted to, he could've expressed the outrage Venezuelans feel in a way that doesn't endanger El Sistema."
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman