An interview with Diego Matheuz

A couple of months ago I came across an interview with the conductor Diego Matheuz, a product of El Sistema and one of the leading candidates for the role of “the new Dudamel,” published in the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal. I’m sure Matheuz is a lovely chap and a great musician, and he may well be an insightful person – it’s hard to know, though, as he doesn’t give much away in this interview. What comes across is less an impression of Matheuz than one of the System and benefactor that formed him.

To quote from the interview: “I would like the world and Venezuela to work like an orchestra. Ours is a wonderful country, but we’re polarized and we lack communication. Why do I state that the orchestra is a perfect society? Because if I play the violin and we’re going to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I’ve got to listen to the clarinet, the flute and the other instruments, just as they must follow me. A dialogue is established, not just aural but visual too, marked by respect and rapport. I can’t rehearse if I’m not prepared. The same is true of them. That gives rise to a sense of belonging that Maestro Abreu taught us from the first rehearsal. He said that ‘the orchestra should function like a Swiss watch: a perfect mechanism.’”

I’ve translated the word engranaje as “mechanism,” but it carries the meaning of cogs or gears. So what happened to the dialogue, rapport and warm fuzzy feelings just a few lines earlier? Orchestral music-making has gone from conversation to automation without skipping a beat, and the musicians have been transformed from sensitive listeners to cogs in a machine.

This paragraph captures many points that I develop in my book. Like so many Sistema declarations, it just doesn’t make sense if you stop to think about it. It has a jarring contradiction at its heart: between the humanizing images that Matheuz evokes at first and the dehumanized ideal of the Swiss watch with which he concludes. I was fascinated to read Abreu’s aphorism, which I hadn’t heard before, because several young musicians in Venezuela had described themselves to me precisely as “cogs in a machine.” Apparently this was no aberrant finding, but rather the System working as intended. The Swiss watch metaphor conveys perfectly the systemic authoritarianism of the program, echoed by Abreu’s close associate, Chefi Borzacchini, who imagines a future Venezuela that is “perfectly in tune, with all its citizens joined in a single direction.” This is not an image of a democratic society.

“Many people say it’s a utopia,” claims Matheuz of El Sistema. Michel Foucault, however, in his famous book Discipline and Punish, distinguishes between utopia and “a military dream of society”: “its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature, but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine.” Here, then, is the root of the Swiss watch metaphor: a military dream of society. These are extraordinarily revealing words that Abreu utters (through Matheuz), ones that get to the heart of El Sistema’s character as a disciplinary institution (and may even shed some light on Abreu’s unlikely alliance with Chávez, a military man).

One can feel Abreu hovering figuratively over Matheuz’s shoulder, just as he does literally with his conducting protégés in rehearsal. The result is an interview that repeatedly reads like a conversation with Abreu channeled through a medium, rather than an insight into the mind of a young, up-and-coming conductor.

El Sistema’s cult of personality is palpable. Over and over, Matheuz name-checks or quotes Abreu (“El Maestro”):

“El Maestro says that in music you can’t have fear.”

“I remember that by 17 we already wanted to play Bruckner and El Maestro told us: ‘Guys, we’re not ready yet. Let’s start with Mahler.’”

Abreu’s hand is felt everywhere – taking decisions, sowing his famous aphorisms, dictating the program’s artistic direction.

“In El Sistema there’s a way of making music that has the stamp of Maestro Abreu.”

In his excellent new book, El cuerpo dócil de la cultura, Manuel Silva-Ferrer describes the communicational field under Chávez as a panopticon, in which wherever you looked, you always ended up looking towards the centre (p.204). He quotes the Venezuelan psychologist Colette Capriles, who argued that the country was a dictatorship because one could not stop thinking about Chávez for a second. The same is true of El Sistema: wherever you look, whoever is speaking, you see the shadow of Abreu.

“Maestro Abreu can trust that his work will outlive him,” says the interviewer. “It’s very hard to put yourself in the place of such a brilliant mind,” replies the conductor, his connection with the other world momentarily faltering.

At this point, interviewer and interviewee almost disappear, so hard are they trying to channel the thoughts of the absent Abreu.

I can’t help remembering the highly decorated musician who compared Abreu to Ronald Wilford, the shadowy maestro of maestros who pulls the strings of the classical music world in Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth.

“Any country that develops a system like ours can have the same success. That is the dream of El Maestro, that everyone should adopt and develop it.”

But what is Matheuz’s dream? It is hard to tell; this interview gives little sense of his own vision, of any original thoughts he might have; once the Sistema clichés and the bowing to the wisdom of Abreu and Dudamel are removed, there is little left. El Sistema is Abreu’s dream, and his alone.

Matheuz is an emblem of an educational system that is distinguished, as he says, by “work and discipline,” and values toeing the line over creativity or independence. No wonder a senior Venezuelan musician wrote publicly in a newspaper article that El Sistema was “a gigantic flattery machine designed to satisfy the interests of its founder José Antonio Abreu.” (Note to doubters – evidence in book.)

Finally, at the root of Abreu-Matheuz’s idea of the orchestra as a perfect society is the suggestion that the musical listening that takes place in a large ensemble translates into the social realm; that musicians who develop advanced ensemble skills will become more respectful and open-minded social beings; that coordinating your entry with the second trumpet makes you more likely to tolerate his views. This idea is absolutely fundamental to El Sistema’s philosophy, and it’s a lovely one, but is it anything more than romanticization or idealization?

People love to make high-sounding claims for their favourite activities, and it’s unsurprising that conductors like Abreu and Matheuz would try to justify their vocation by claiming various kinds of benefits for those under their baton (they’d hardly get away with saying “the orchestra is a model for an ideal society because I get to tell everyone what to do”). But I’d like to see some evidence for this. If such claims were true, then we might expect orchestral musicians to be above average in terms of professional and personal satisfaction, and orchestras to be bastions of enlightened social behaviour. And that’s not exactly what scholarly studies or anecdotal accounts show, to put it mildly (evidence in book). Perhaps, then, an orchestra is a metaphor rather than a catalyst for harmonious social interaction. If so, one of El Sistema’s cornerstones looks distinctly crumbly.

4 thoughts on “An interview with Diego Matheuz

  1. I think you are right to question the harmonising view of orchestral life, but you seem to go to the opposite extreme. Members of the Barenboim/Said Orchestra seem to value working together despite political differences, for example. I’m sure there are related problems there too, but there is also testimony to how important they find the fact that there can be some kind of non verbal agreement where at the verbal level there is none. My own experience of playing jazz would also suggest the significance of playing together can enhance social contact, etc. Clearly there are, as you show, serious problems with El Sistema, but the idea that the positive side of collective music-making is wholly absent seems implausible. I also, from the pieces I have seen so far, don’t get any sense that you really acknowledge that Chavez was a democratically elected leader, whom the US tried to remove in a coup. Again, I know he was evidently flawed in many ways, but he also has real achievements to his name.

  2. There’s literature on the WEDO – do you know it? I can think of a 4 academic articles and an insider’s book off the top of my head. Paint a mixed picture, to say the least.
    Jazz and orchestral music are very different – indeed, I suggest in my book that if El Sistema and similar projects are serious about their social aims, they should pay more attention to jazz and less to orchestras.
    I don’t say that the positive is absent, but as with so many aspects of El Sistema, rational thought has been swamped by a mountain of superficial, utopian guff about the power of music. If 100 people writing about El Sistema focus entirely on the positives, I make no apology for focusing on the downsides. When the public conversation is so unbalanced, what’s needed is a counter-balance.
    As for the politics… that’s too big an issue. Suffice it to say that I’ve been “accused” today of being both a Marxist and an anti-Chavista.

    • Not asking you to apologise, just seeking to make sure the complexity of the issue of music and its social and other implications is given adequate attention. Will get the book to get the full picture. I suppose as a non musicologist that I am a bit suspicious of the degree to which some musicologists look at all the downsides of the classical music world and sometimes miss why it can still be vitally important. Not saying you do this, but some people tend to. Which is not to say there is not something deeply problematic about significant parts of the classical music world. I myself got put off it at an early age by rigid teaching and went towards jazz, having to rediscover classical music in my own way.

  3. I’m sure the experience of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has been mixed, as would be that of any organisation; but, whatever the truth of what Barenboim might say about working together, etc., it seems to me that a good part of its worth is for the rest of the world. It might be impossibly naïve, even literally foolish; it might even lead to despair, when contrasting the results with so much else in Palestine. But I do think there is some symbolic worth in it showing *us* – I suspect that in many respects, it probably shows us rather more than the Middle East – what can, with such determination, naïveté, and even arrogance be achieved. By that, I mean not just the young musicians coming to play together, though it remains an extraordinary sight, whatever qualifications one might wish to append, but their giving the greatest live performances of Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies I have ever heard. Perhaps that again matters more to me than it does to your average Palestinian, were there such a person, or perhaps not, but it still, I think, matters.

    For there are also dialectical explorations and dramatisations of these very issues of freedom and determinism in Beethoven. They surely matter too, especially when given such deeply comprehending performances: led by Barenboim, but brought into actual being, as he might put it, by the orchestral musicians. (The conductor is perhaps both the most and least powerful musician on stage.) None of that means that I think there is no room for deconstruction, whether of Beethoven (Calixto Bieito’s recent ENO Fidelio did a powerful job in that respect), Barenboim, or anything or anyone else. But I do tend to think that the situation with respect the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is more complex than some academic treatments I have encountered (I am certainly no expert here at all, so I am ready to be corrected), given that they often seem to ignore or at least to minimise the emancipatory qualities in the music being performed. Likewise, the situation is of course far more complex than popular, hagiographical treatments.

    For what it is worth, Barenboim, like Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado, and many other conductors, some of them far more overtly ‘authoritarian’ than others, encourages his musicians to play a great deal of chamber music too, appreciating that such collaborative musicianship, less dependent perhaps on hierarchy, is both highly valuable in itself and also necessary for great orchestral musicianship. Indeed, one half of a Prom of theirs I attended was given over to the Mendelssohn Octet, from which he was of naturally entirely absent (at least on stage).

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