Gustavo Dudamel: Genius or Opportunist?

by Linden Runnels

The flamboyant Dudamel.

With his dazzling curly hair and charismatic personality, Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel seems to be a much needed breath of fresh air in the often stuffy and pretentious world of classical music. The conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel was recently hired to become the maestro of the New York Philharmonic starting in the 2026-27 season, where he will be following in the footsteps of music legends like Arturo Toscinini and Leonard Bernstein.

Like Bernstein, Dudamel is rare in his ability to attract listeners from all different types of backgrounds and ages to the classical music world. One reason for his immense popularity is his openness to performing music outside the Western classical canon, such as film and Latin-American music. He has conducted for movies such as West Side Story and Star Wars and has even performed in a Super Bowl halftime show. 

“What I like about Dudamel is that he is high energy. He always has a smile on his face, everything seems to be positive,” Frank Sinatra School of the Arts’ (FSSA) Instrumental Director Eli Kronenberg said. “His music isn’t always perfect, but it’s got some really raw passion and energy that very few directors can coax out of their musicians. He gets it out of them.” 

Dudamel is also known for his commitment to developing young musicians. He helped to create, with the L.A. Philharmonic, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which was inspired by the free musical training he received in El Sistema – the publicly financed music-education program in Venezuela. The YOLA program provides free instruments and music training to over 1,700 young musicians in the Los Angeles area.

Mr. Kronenberg was insistent about bringing Dudamel to Frank Sinatra to work with its students.

“If he’s gonna be in New York, I want him in this building,” he said. 

Dudamel’s personal history, however, is much more complicated than his overwhelming popularity would suggest. Born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, Dudamel began learning the violin within the El Sistema program. Dudamel’s musical talent was recognized early on. By the age of 18, he was named the conductor of Venezuela’s National Youth Orchestra, making him the face of El Sistema and Venezuelan music to international audiences. To this day, Dudamel continues to be a spokesperson for El Sistema, a program designed to keep musically talented kids in school and off the streets in a country whose youth are plagued by poverty, drugs and violence.

While many people, including Dudamel, have praised El Sistema as a solution to the social and economic hardships suffered by Venezuela’s youth, other musicians do not see it that way. Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis acknowledges the positive effect El Sistema has had on Venezuela’s education system, but he does not believe the program has had any significant impact on the social and economic issues affecting the country.

“You cannot expect a musical education to make all the problems of poverty in the country disappear,” Portugheis said.

Other people even believe that El Sistema does more harm than good. Geoffery Baker, a Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London who completed extensive fieldwork on El Sistema, claims the program is far from the “beacon of social justice” it is believed to be around the world. Professor Baker points out that in Venezuela El Sistema is viewed as “a cult, a mafia and a corporation,” with claims of sexual harassment and abuse widespread within the program. 

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Venezuelan musician and educator José  Antonio Abreu. Abreu led the program for nearly four decades with the support of seven Venezuelan governments, including the leftist presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Under Chávez and Maduro, Venezuela devolved into a country of tremendous poverty and crime, with human rights violations being reported regularly.

Dudamel’s close relationships to Chávez and Maduro as a result of coming up through El Sistema and being its biggest star has been vehemently criticized by Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero: “He is El Sistema’s face to the world and thus stands for the idea as well as for the ensemble…. He has chosen to stay silent [on human rights violations] and yet is actively involved in the events.”

While Dudamel claims that he’s not political, Montero, who was appointed an “Honorary Consul” of Amnesty International in 2015 for her advocacy of human rights in Venezuela, finds this to be impossible given his celebrity. Montero sees Dudamel, in fact,  as helping Maduro keep his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government in power: “ I know the damage that using Sistema as a propaganda tool has done. People fall in love with the government because of Sistema. Imagine how dangerous that is.” Montero is calling on Dudamel to break his ties with Maduro: “Step back, Mr. Dudamel! End your friendship with the dictatorship!”

Many Venezuelans share Montero’s sentiments. When a Caracas-based violist named Armando Cañizales Carrillo was killed in 2017 during clashes between protestors and the Bolivarian National Guard, Dudamel made a rare public statement on Facebook: “The only weapons that can be given to people are the necessary tools to forge their future: books, brushes, musical instruments; in short, those that embody the highest values of the  human spirit: good, truth and beauty.” 

Dudamel’s response was immediately met with praise from U.S. and European journalists, with Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times calling Dudamel’s statement one of the strongest of his career. Venezuelans, however, were not inclined to forgive Dudamel for his years of silence with this one Facebook post. In particular, Cañizales Carrillo’s relatives not only refused to forgive Dudamel, they rejected anything he had to say, with his Uncle exclaiming, “You are as responsible for the death of Armando as the same policeman who shot him. Don’t you dare mention his name, you’re a fake and a scoundrel.” For many Venezuelans, Dudamel is a traitor to his country because he has failed to denounce the violent and oppressive rule of Maduro, who has imprisoned his political opponents and stifled free speech and protest.

When asked about Dudamel’s ties to Venezuelan dictators, FSSA senior instrumental major Alejandro Meyer-Nilliasca seemed unsurprised: “I didn’t know that but I’m not exactly shocked. Gergiev (another famous Russian conductor) is close with Putin; this kinda stuff is often overlooked.”

Mr. Kronenberg had a similar reaction.

“If that’s the way Dudamel is and the way he does things, that’s a shame. Unfortunately, now there’s problems like that everywhere,” he said.

For Mr. Kronenberg, this newfound information about Dudamel had little impact on his opinion of Dudamel as a musician.

Like Alejandro and Mr. Kronenberg, most Americans are unaware of the controversy surrounding Dudamel in his home country and, for those Americans who are aware of it including the Board members and musicians of the NY Philharmonic, it is silently ignored. So, as Russian musicians Kare banned from performing for not publicly denouncing Putin, Dudamel is allowed to remain on friendly terms with Maduro as he receives one of the most prestigious positions in the classical music world – conductor of the NY Philharmonic.

While Dudamel’s musical gifts and positive impact on classical music are indisputable, it’s time to have a long-overdue public discussion about why his ties to dictatorial leaders like Chávez and Maduro have been given a pass. Suppressing free speech with violence and imprisoning one’s political opponents are the acts of a dictator whether they hail from the right or left of the political spectrum.

The people of Venezuela understand this, and it’s time for Americans to hear their outcries and understand this as well. As much as Dudamel would like to remain politically neutral, as the great historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”