For Gustavo Dudamel's Youth Orchestra, Politics and Art Like Oil and Water

Aug 23, 2017

For a number of years now, Venezuela's Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has been a bright light of the country's cultural and artistic life. Its social value in helping talented young people, some from extreme poverty, develop themselves and find a path of purpose via classical music has also been widely applauded.

This government-supported program is a truly fine example of how art can improve lives. But therein lies the problem—the message from the government often is, don't bite the hand that feeds you.

It was recently announced that the orchestra's four-city U.S. tour has been abruptly canceled, after conductor Gustavo Dudamel wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that got him and the orchestra in trouble.

In essence, it seems to me to be another case of art and politics not mixing. Dudamel spoke out about the turbulent situation in his country, expressing criticism of the government's actions, and was punished for it—or rather, the young people of the orchestra were punished. The musicians have been rehearsing for three months for the opportunity to display their talent and wonderful achievements far and wide.

Dudamel will be fine. In addition to leading the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, he's also the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, being one of the best-known conductors in the world, he has guest conducted pretty much everywhere, including London, Vienna and Berlin.

But all that fame didn't help the kids, so there is the dilemma.

I'm not saying there's an easy solution. The history of artists speaking out against authority is almost as old as art itself. This situation is just another reminder of how fragile the arts are when they go from an individual endeavor to one that is more widely supported by the culture, including the government.

The positive values of the study of music for young people are so readily apparent. Learning to concentrate, developing fine motor skills, acquiring knowledge of and aesthetic sensitivity to music, collaborating with others—all of these benefits contribute in countless ways to increasing the chances of success later in life.

Of course, organizing and implementing the best vehicle to teach music to young people music requires considerable engagement—and financial help. That's why governments get involved.

I know there are other controversies surrounding the orchestra and its relation to the Venezuelan government. It can be and is a political football. This is not a forum for arguing the specifics of the controversies taking place in Venezuela, but I would say in this particular case, for the kids' sake, let them go. And Dudamel would be the best person to lead them.