Radical Chic at the LA Philharmonic

MANIPULATING PERCEPTIONS & POLITICS AT THE PHIL - When the LA Philharmonic’s wunkerkind maestro Gustavo Dudamel honored the Venezuela of President Hugo Chávez with not only concerts but state-supportive activities in the homeland this past February, not many in local media raised a single skeptical eyebrow.

The LA Times gladly rode the junket all the way to Caracas, and their only mention of Chávez was in noting the fact that the Venezuelan strongman will face an election in October.  A second piece in the paper omitted the politics of the Phil's concert series entirely, merely mentioning that some members of the orchestra were suffering from food poisoning after a week in Caracas—while the city has, in the time of Chávez, become the murder capital of South America.  (In fact, one of Dudamel’s bodyguards in Caracas was killed within two weeks of the orchestra returning home to Los Angeles).

However, objections to the ancillary political antics were chronicled at the New York Times and also by the noted scolds at Commentary, who opined that Dudamel was no Toscanini—Toscanini, who far more assertively snubbed fellow countryman Mussolini in his time.

“So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chávez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region,” Commentary observed, also noting that a cheerful Dudamel had conducted the Venezuela national anthem for a nascent government-run television station that had successfully vanquished an independent media operation.

Indeed, that strikes a resonant chord with some local skeptical media who would like to delve a little more deeply into the LA Phil’s general operations in Los Angeles. The bad rap on the orchestra of late is that it has, to a few long-time observers, I among them, taken on a strongman’s most notoriously nasty habit—that of silencing local dissent—to new public relations depths, even as Chávez would solicit soft musical help from Dudamel in banishing indie media in the old country.

While national and international media certainly enjoy privileges at Disney Hall, local scribes have known for some time that the Phil’s publicity department is far more eager to grant access to local Kappa Kappa pledges who find Dudamel’s locks of hair and utopian rhetoric amazing (“Music is a fundamental human right,” Maestro often beams), and less eager to welcome the graying day-to-day Nestors in media who might see crimps in his musical chainmail, or even worse, in his political acumen.

This is how the peculiar political episodes involving the conductor’s tour of Venezuela escaped local reporting entirely.

It’s useful to note that while tightly controlling public relations on its own musical and political undertakings, the public relations effort the LA Phil puts into local music education is far more inclusive. The orchestra acknowledges it is trying to re-create Venezuela’s vaunted music program for children, El Sistemo, which produced Dudamel himself, right here in Los Angeles, where music education at the public school level has so badly atrophied over the past two decades.

El Sistemo is also now seen by many detractors of Chávez as a co-opted long-standing success story presently being used to burnish Chavez’s image—a co-opting in which Dudamel is also entirely complicit in the eyes of some of those who paid attention to the fine points of his Venezuela visit.

The LA Philharmonic works hard to convince donor citizens, charities and corporations that when it comes to music, it is both thinking globally and acting locally.  It wants the locals to believe that its brand and presence in a given community sprinkles enough fairy dust to save local music programs; indeed, it has positioned itself as the city’s substitute teacher in music.  

In doing so, it competes against other local music organizations  for foundation and grant money—the Phil has long been, for instance, the raison d’etre of Pasadena Showcase and other charity orgs, who make the orchestra the control point for music education in the city of Los Angeles. And its music education programs are no mere one-off appearances; it is now actively creating whole orchestras for children in schools.

But as the LA Philharmonic engages educational, civic, and even international issues more and more, it also needs to open itself to fair media scrutiny more and more as well.  To make sure we’re all getting our money’s worth in the schools, and that political activities don’t become inappropriate for an American orchestra, its media observers must include more than fawning critics and dazzled cheerleaders--and we depend on media to hold the feet of all civic organizations, orchestras among them, to the fire.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com.)

Tags: Joseph Mailander, LA Phil, Los Angeles Philharmonic, LA Philharmonic, Disney Hall, Gustavo Dudamel, Hugo Chavez, politics, Los Angeles, culture, LA culture, music

Vol 10 Issue 38
Pub: May 11, 2012