Skip to Content


Classical music's greatest political butt-kissers: Dudamel, Gergiev and Rattle

Damian Thompson explores the politics of classical music from the butt-kissing of Dudamel and Gergiev to the German nationalism of Christian Thielemann

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

On 8 March 2013, Gustavo Dudamel stood by the coffin of the Marxist autocrat Hugo Chavez and conducted the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in the Venezuelan national anthem. He assumed, like everyone else, that the coffin contained a fresh corpse: the president of Venezuela was reported to have died from cancer on 5 March at the age of 58. Not so, it is now claimed. According to his former head of security, Chavez died on 30 December 2012. The news was kept secret while his lieutenants panicked. The funeral — covered with ludicrous sycophancy by the BBC — was, at least in part, a masquerade.

Whatever the truth, Dudamel — who’d recently taken up residence in America as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — had to be there. Foreign correspondents noted admiringly that this was because classical music played such a huge part in the life of Venezuela, thanks to the miracle of El Sistema, the programme of musical education that supposedly turns kids from the slums into world-class musicians. In fact, there’s also an element of masquerade about the Simon Bolivar orchestra: its dazzling players are generally not from the dirt-poor backgrounds described in El Sistema press releases. The dashing Dudamel must know this, but says nothing. The Southbank Centre — which has just announced yet another visit by Dudamel and the Venezuelans — must know this too.

Dudamel would have faced ostracism or worse in his native country if he’d missed the funeral. El Sistema exported pro-Chavez propaganda as well as Mahler symphonies to gullible global audiences. The young maestro was (and remains) a cultural ambassador for corrupt Venezuela, just as Sviatoslav Richter and David Oistrakh were sent abroad to detoxify Soviet Russia.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame him, or them. No Russian performer or composer could stand up to the Kremlin and survive — with one exception: the uncompromising and wilful pianist Maria Yudina, who converted to Russian Orthodoxy from Judaism and told Stalin she was praying that God would forgive his crimes. He put up with it, amazingly, because he was impressed by her life of self-denial. She gave every penny she earned to the Church. She always wore the same black dress, which Shostakovich (maybe feeling guilty about his own forelock-tugging) cattily suggested she never washed.

But, as I say, we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. Gustavo Dudamel knew that a misstep by him could destroy El Sistema and, to his credit, never indulged in the grotesque butt-kissing that Valery Gergiev directs at Putin. Still, Chavez was a monster, albeit a popular one, and moreover we now know that underage musicians climbed Venezuela’s artistic ladder by sleeping with their teachers. Fairly or unfairly, Dudamel is tainted by the system that created him.

Classical musicians in the West face milder versions of Dudamel’s dilemma. ‘Because it’s the most abstract art form, they aren’t as ideological as novelists and playwrights,’ an internationally renowned conductor tells me. ‘Politics isn’t something they’ve thought deeply about. They just slip into the soft-left consensus’ — in other words, the ideology of the artistic and educational establishment that pays their mortgages. There are few composers left in the European Marxist mould of Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze and Cornelius Cardew; Maurizio Pollini — who these days plays the piano with all the dexterity of Les Dawson — seems to have lost his hard-left convictions. Instead, the drift is towards hazy political correctness, especially in British early music circles, whose ‘democratic’ principles lead to some distinctly ropey performances. Even Sir Simon Rattle, New Labour to the tip of his baton, is infected by this ‘hey, guys, we’re all in this together’ ethos. It’s one reason he’s been a disappointment at the Berlin Phil, an orchestra that requires and expects discipline. They’ll get it if Rattle is succeeded by Christian Thielemann, a German nationalist who declared last month that ‘I find it unacceptable that an Arab-born teenager yells into his teacher’s face that he won’t listen to a woman’.

If a British conductor had said that, he’d be pushed off the podium — if not by his colleagues then by bureaucrats. They’re the real problem. The public sector thinks classical music must atone for its elitism by ‘inclusiveness’. Naturally it was taken in by El Sistema, emanating as it did from a socialist paradise in South America. They’ve now set one up in England. Sistema England, admits a recent review of English music education, is a ‘“social action” project which use music as a tool’. It achieves encouraging results — but, to quote my conductor friend, ‘the El Sistema fad is lowering the standards required of young musicians, and also undermining the magnificent tradition of British youth orchestras’.

Then there is Sistema Scotland, which is chaired by Richard Holloway, a socialist ex-bishop with a Wagnerian ego. It aims to transform children’s lives through music — and politics, too, judging by the ultra-nationalist views of some of its supporters. The ‘BIG Project’, inspired by Sistema Scotland, takes part in events devised by Karine Polwart, a folk singer who specialises in Celtic agitprop. All of which is music to the ears of the SNP government, now busily engaged in a quasi-fascist attempt to infuse the arts with its ideology. Not a very British aspiration, you might think. But it does smack of Venezuela.

Show comments