Many Americans may only know Gustavo Dudamel, if at all, as an inspiration for the charismatic conductor in the award-winning Amazon television series, “Mozart in the Jungle.”
In fact, the 36-year-old maestro is an internationally-acclaimed musician and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A native of Venezuela, the energetic and wildly talented conductor is perhaps one of the most famous Venezuelans in the world today.
This week, Dudamel’s country has slipped further into a bloody, volatile protest movement that has hardened into a prolonged standoff between demonstrators and the government. And on Wednesday, the turmoil struck deep for the conductor. A young violinist, Armando Canizales, was killed during a demonstration after being struck in the neck at a protest in a city east of Caracas. Video shows the young man being rushed by two men on a motorcycle to an ambulance as friends cried, “No, Armando!” according to the Associated Press.
The 17-year-old musician had been a member in the publicly funded El Sistema, a youth music education program that propelled Dudamel to stardom. Following the death, Dudamel changed his Facebook cover photo to Canizales’ name, written in block letters with an all-black background..
And on Thursday, Dudamel penned an open letter to the Venezuelan government posted on his Facebook, saying, “It is time to listen to the people: Enough is enough.”
“I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people,” Dudamel said. “Times cannot be defined by the blood of our people.”
The letter, titled “I Raise My Voice,” marked the conductor’s most explicit statement to the regime of President Nicolas Maduro to date. For years, Venezuelans have criticized Dudamel’s refusal to speak out politically, claiming the conductor was cozy with the unpopular leadership.
The statement also followed a chaotic week in the South American country. Five people have been killed in Venezuela since Monday, according to the Associated Press. Two died when the bus they were traveling in flipped as it attempted to swerve past a barricade set up by protesters. A third person was killed during looting at a shop in the industrial city of Valencia and a motorcyclist died after being struck by a car trying to swerve away from a protest, the chief prosecutor’s office said.
In the past month, at least 35 people have died, and hundreds more have been injured. The country faces rampant crime, corruption and government dysfunction. Food and basic medicine are increasingly scarce, and inflation and unemployment have soared.
Thousands of demonstrators – mostly middle class – have poured into the streets, outraged by Venezuela’s economic collapse and the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule. On Monday, Maduro delivered a decree ordering an overhaul of the polarized nation’s constitution, which was pushed through in 1999 by his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.
In the midst of this turmoil, Dudamel has attempted to ease out of his silence and address the conflict. Some have responded with a sigh of relief: “I needed to hear that,” one woman commented on the conductor’s open letter Thursday. For other Venezuelans, Dudamel’s statements have been too little, too late.
Many still recall an instance from three years ago, when an earlier round of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces erupted on the streets of Venezuela, and Dudamel conducted a commemorative concert only blocks away. Days later, he met with Maduro, an appearance that angered some of his followers.
Responding to the criticism in an on opinion article in the Los Angeles Times, Dudamel said, “I am neither a politician nor an activist.” He conducts orchestras, he does not take political sides, he said. But Venezuelans have increasingly demanded that he use his platform to speak out against the regime.
Appearing in a video on Facebook last week addressing his country’s recent events, Dudamel called on political leaders “to find the ways necessary to get out of the crisis that afflicts our beloved Venezuela.”
“Dear political leaders of Venezuela,” Dudamel said, “immediate solutions are needed, leaving aside any kind of political egoism and opening the doors to the most healthy and exemplary democratic game.”
“I think you’re too late, maestro,” one follower responded on Facebook. “This is not the same country where you had opportunities to get ahead.”
“Okay, maestro, you have taken far too long,” commented another. “You can’t be with God and the devil at the same time. You have to take a side and be consistent and strong.”
A great deal of Venezuelans’ criticism stems from Dudamel’s relationship as a leading symbol of the music education program El Sistema, which relies on crucial government support. He also remains music director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which originated as a part of El Sistema.
Dudamel has frequently been photographed with Venezuela’s leaders, including the current president and the late Chávez. He also performed at Chávez’ funeral in 2013, according to the Associated Press.
Dudamel’s role as one of the world’s most famous conductors inevitably places him in the center of the political theater. The maestro was described by The Washington Post’s classical music critic Anne Midgette a “scarily talented young conductor who has been thrust into the position of acting as music’s savior,” a musician whose great strengths are “wild, untrammeled energy combined with visceral talent.”
Gael Garcia Bernal, who stars as the maestro “Rodrigo” on “Mozart in the Jungle,” has said his character was inspired by Dudamel, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Rodrigo wouldn’t exist without Gustavo.” The Amazon series has even cast Dudamel as a stage manager. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
In a recent lengthy interview with the Los Angeles Times, Dudamel said he still clearly wants to keep El Sistema out of partisan politics. In Venezuela, the right to a musical education is written into the constitution, the Los Angeles Times reported. However, even this right may be at risk now that Maduro has ordered an overhaul of the constitution.
“I play for everybody,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You cannot imagine how many times I have played for 50,000 in a stadium. You think that people believe in one side or the other? No, they believe in different things. But they are united there.”
“Everyone believes in their different ideas, but never have I seen a fight in the orchestra,” he added.
He spoke of a day last week in Caracas, when the streets were a war zone, yet 1,000 young people showed up for the first day of auditions for a new orchestra El Sistema is creating for teenagers.
“When I see these 1,000 children auditioning for something that will give them hope, that is a symbol,” he says. “We have to keep playing, with the goal to unite. I want to unite my country.”