Dudamel and the Bolívars: Media responses and silences

[22/03/2017] Something curious is going on. José Antonio Abreu has always provoked polarized responses, as I explored here. Since 2014, Gustavo Dudamel has attracted an increasing number of critics as well – though almost exclusively for his politics, not his music. The economist Ricardo Hausmann summed up an argument that many have made: “he’s a giant of a musician but a moral midget.”

Now, though, his music making seems to be receiving more mixed responses as well. As I have previously noted on this blog, Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar orchestra are no longer guaranteed critics’ affection in London and New York, for example. But their current Beethoven cycle is producing something of a different order: the kind of polarization of reactions that has previously been largely confined to the social and political spheres.

What follows, I should underline, is not an exhaustive analysis of media reports; it’s an impressionistic view based on what has crossed my radar. It’s also underpinned by private commentary on social media. If I’ve missed anything important, do let me know.

1. Dudamel and the Bolívars presented the Beethoven cycle in Caracas last month before taking it on tour to Europe. I was particularly struck by a review by Joaquín López Mujica. So too were several members of the Venezuelan Society of Musicologists, who poured scorn on the article’s pretentious, boot-licking style in the society’s discussion forum (which is closed, so I can’t link to it). What none of them mentioned, though, was that the author of the review happened to be a “communications consultant” employed by… El Sistema – in other words, someone paid by the program to improve its public image. Not exactly what you’d call an impartial reviewer, then.

Not only that, but a certain Joaquín López Mujica played a starring role in Roger Santodomingo’s 1990 investigative article on José Antonio Abreu. If this is the same person, he seems to have had an impressive change of heart in the intervening period. As I wrote in Chapter 1 of my book:

Joaquín López Mujica, a member of CONAC’s consultative council, claimed that Abreu had approximately forty journalists among his consultants and asserted: “Abreu’s management has been characterized by covert control of information. It’s what could be termed a totalitarianism of cultural information.” Santodomingo concluded, “Abreu loves the press.”

López Mujica criticized Abreu repeatedly, describing him as “definitely divorced from the reality of the country. He is floating on a planet made of candy. The problem is that underneath there are great inequalities in the assignation of resources and priorities are neglected. Money is being spent and spent but results are scarce.” López Mujica also published many articles himself, in which Abreu was again frequently a target: for example, in one he criticized “the strangulation of the national system of bands, the elitist conception of musical culture, [and] the rigidity of projects imposed on the provinces” under Abreu’s management.

López Mujica does not spare El Sistema from criticism, describing it as “an illusion.” The SBYO started with the aim of democratizing high culture but has ended up competing “disloyally” with other orchestras. Huge amounts are spent on foreign tours yet most provincial núcleos are far from impressive. El Sistema appears as overfunded and underachieving.

Now it seems that López Mujica has joined the consultants’ ranks and come round to the Bolívars and the idea of totalitarianism of cultural information.

2. Once the orchestra crossed the Atlantic to Spain, the rave reviews continued. A brief but glowing account of the whole cycle appeared… from El Sistema’s press office. In the bizarre world of El Sistema, it appears that reviewing yourself is normal behaviour.

3. But it was not only employees of El Sistema who were impressed. Jesús Ruiz Mantilla picked up the hagiographical baton from López Mujica and the Fundamusical press office and wrote a glowing profile of Dudamel for El País. He summarily dismissed the political criticisms that the conductor faces and repeated the rose-tinted simplifications and inaccuracies that characterize most journalistic accounts of the subject. The author does not appear to be on the Sistema payroll, but it’s hard to see the difference between his tone and that of those writers who are. Reading this exaggerated eulogy, I recalled Oscar Ramos’s 1990s article “La trilogía,” which mocked Chefi Borzacchini, Abreu’s close ally at El Nacional newspaper, for painting the minister as a hero “in language that recalls the odes of Gómez” (Venezuela’s early-twentieth-century dictator).

4. Yet a very different picture was painted in a review of the Madrid performance of the Ninth Symphony, also in El País. Luis Gago made one positive (and inaccurate) comment about El Sistema, which the sub-editor misleadingly chose for the article’s title; but the concert review itself was deeply unflattering. Indeed, the reviewer could not find a single good thing to say about the performance, or indeed about Dudamel as a conductor of Beethoven.

5. This was just a prelude, however, to Gonzalo Lahoz’s coruscating review of the same concert. For the author, the performance was so bad that the work was no longer Beethoven. It was simply a media circus and money-spinner for the classical music industry.

Comparing these articles raises a lot of questions. Are the wildly diverging responses due to the interests and attachments of their authors? To contrasting political positions? Has the orchestra got worse, or are critics hearing it differently? Or was it just a bad concert? Both Madrid reviewers noted (with some perplexity) that the performance met with a euphoric response from the sold-out hall. Did the audience grasp something that the reviewers failed to? Or did the reviewers hear clearly and the audience respond to the illusions fostered by a non-stop media and marketing campaign rather than the musical realities that unfolded in front of them? Whatever the truth, there is clearly a lot more to discuss here.


As ever, though, important parts of the story never get within a mile of media articles. Music critics are generally happier talking about musical results than about social and political questions. Also, no research is required in order to write a concert review, whereas a lot would be needed to come up with something new to say about El Sistema. As a result, the press has said nothing about what’s happening off-stage.

But those of us who are close to El Sistema are hearing reports that might account for the tour’s sabor of a publicity campaign, and even – if the negative reviews are accurate – for the loss of quality. The accuracy of the reports will only become clearer over time; being El Sistema, nothing is official, the important stuff happens behind closed doors, and musicians’ responses are murmured sotto voce, off the record.

As I noted months ago, figures within and close to the orchestra claim that Dudamel has handed in his notice as far as touring with the orchestra in Europe and North America is concerned. Touring is an important source of income for the musicians, since the devaluation of Venezuela’s currency has hit their salaries hard. No more touring would be a bitter pill to swallow – which may explain the rumours that a considerable number of musicians have left the orchestra recently. Another contributory factor is that working for the Bolívar orchestra has never been easy (see my interview two years ago with one of its musicians). Some musicians are unhappy with their treatment by their bosses and fed up with the culture of the orchestra, including the huge disparities between them and their superstar conductor, whose behaviour – they claim – does not always match his cheery public image. Playing in the Bolívar is not the plum job it was when I did my fieldwork in 2010-11, then, and some are choosing to quit.

Dudamel may now switch his attention to the younger generation of Venezuelan musicians. Indeed, he must be somewhat nostalgic for a decade ago, when the Bolívars burst onto the global scene as a youth orchestra. Critics were extremely forgiving, in part because of the youth of the protagonists, and there was no political questioning. Leading a real Venezuelan National Youth Orchestra again probably looks like a more appealing gig than more of the same with the Bolívars, just with increasing critical scrutiny and decreasing quality.

If this really is the swansong for Dudamel and the Bolívars in Europe, then they will be hoping to garner some better reviews in Germany and Austria so that they can go out on a higher note than they did in Spain.