Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Re-considering The Final Cut

Is it for this that Daddy died?
Was it you?
Was it me?
Did I watch too much TV?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eyes? - "The Post War Dream," The Final Cut

"Roger Waters and David Gilmour might never resolve their spat, but you can revisit their halcyon days with the staggering 14-CD Pink Floyd box set Oh By the Way (Capitol/EMI), which includes all of their studio albums. And no, you can't order it without The Final Cut." (Spin, January 2008, p. 32)

I know that I generally don't cover pop matters, but that doesn't mean that I don't sit and think about pop records. Indeed, if you ask - and no one has to date - I can go on ad nauseam about my opinions concerning pop music, past, present, and future.

I am moved, though, to mount a defense of Pink Floyd's last Roger Waters-directed album (more on that anon), The Final Cut. This record, more than even Animals, is generally considered the nadir of Floyd's Waters-era artistic pretensions and dearth of quality. That is, to my mind, the single dumbest judgment on a record ever. Indeed, while Slominsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective, might have worse judgments on better music, there aren't too many similar modern judgments. Except for the (un)conscious fanboyism that has more or less made Blonde on Blonde Dylan's popularly-considered best record (when Planet Waves, Blood on the Tracks, and Highway 61 Revisited are all better by half). Here is a passage from Chris Ott's generally right review of the 2004 reissue (despite its hosting at the more-than-usually risible Pitchfork Media),
I can think of few pop songwriters who've delivered their diaries with enough conviction to transcend the medieval, lifeless nature of oral tradition, and I can think of only one other rock critic as touched by The Final Cut as I've been over the years. Kurt Loder awarded The Final Cut Rolling Stone's sacrosanct five star rating in issue 393, comparing Waters' gripping linear narrative to its only conceivable peer, master storyteller Bob Dylan. An unflinching, out of control spiral toward the center of paternal identity, Britain's stiff upper lip, and the idiocy of war, The Final Cut fulfills the promise of The Wall's most poignant moments, gutting sons, soldiers, and the unknowing inheritors of their sacrifices eight ways from Sunday.
In some regard, The Final Cut was the first Roger Waters solo-album, but only insofar as everything after and including Wish You Were Here is a Waters solo disc. The progression from The Dark Side of the Moon through Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, and - finally - to The Final Cut is a single-minded one. At the risk of being too overblown and metaphysical, Waters' big four cover alienation, societally and personally. Everything in that arc tends toward The Final Cut. Instead of a bloated, arrogant rock-opera about the alienation and creeping insanity of some fictional artist, Waters' final Floyd record explores the causes of that alienation.

The Final Cut is, at its heart, a withering social critique of Margaret "Maggie" Thatcher's England. Mary Whitehouse merited a similarly unpleasant commentary in Animals' "Pigs (Three Different Ones)," but she did not permeate the record the way Thatcher seems to in The Final Cut. Waters is performing a balancing act in the record: between the feeling of hope, loss, and distress created at the end of the Second World War and the bleak reality, as he saw it, of 1970s and 1980s England. "The Gunner's Dream" is the most piercing pronouncement of the ideals of the War and what it meant to the participants,
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what's more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don't blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.
And no one kills the children anymore.
But, with a sharp twist, after the Gunner narrates his hopes and aspirations for society after the war, the proper narrator of the song bursts in, agonized,
Night after night
Going round and round my brain
His dream is driving me insane.
In the corner of some foreign field
The gunner sleeps tonight.
What's done is done.
We cannot just write off his final scene.
Take heed of the dream.
Take heed.

This is strong stuff, considering the early-1980s pop milieu into which this track was dropped. Mr. MacMillan (uttering the line in 1957) was premature when he uttered, "Most of our people have never had it so good." The music of the 1980s seemed to take this to heart, churning out synth-heavy pop with a relentlessly cheery message, but then roared Roger Waters, singing a "requiem for the post-war dream." This was jarring, but - then again - most good art is. Waters seemed to have created Brechtian alienation for his listeners. By talking about the War and the betrayal and loss of its values, Waters made an obvious breach with listeners either too young or too unconcerned to bother with the matter.

This record is Waters' most consistent and emotionally harrowing work, and it deserves to be. It demands that the listener explore, in a deep and meaningful way, the issues that it presents. "Maggie, what have we done?" is a question to be answered by the listener. As much as The Wall was self-indulgent muttering by a rock-star bothered about being a rock-star, The Final Cut is a spare, emotionally raw exploration of why that rock-star is so bothered. Indeed, our record in question seems to be the organic outgrowth of The Wall's stretch from "Mother," to "Comfortably Numb," and had the Final Cut tracks been interpolated appropriate with those songs, there would be a work of almost staggering artistic power. What's done, though, as the man said, is done.

The best analog for The Final Cut is Springsteen's Nebraska. Both are song-driven, spare, and emotionally powerful records. They also approach the same issues from different sides. Tell me that songs like "Two Suns in the Sunset" don't have echoes and counterpoints in songs like "Reason to Believe." Springsteen, through a loose retelling of the Starkweather killings, comments on a situation that Waters explores from a causal basis. Combined, Nebraska and The Final Cut make a potent blend of cause-and-effect for 1970s isolation, desolation, and the strangeness that affected the decade. Springsteen looks at the everyday influences on the self, so to speak, while Waters looks at the broader historical and philosophical contexts that shape and drive the same lyrical entity.

Forget the hangover from 1968 and 1969.

This one goes back to D-Day, and even earlier to 1939 and 1941.

The Final Cut and Nebraska, too, have a similar standing in the artists' oeuvres. Listeners don't know quite what to make of them. That, though, does not diminish the deeply personal and artistic statements by the men driving those records.

So, you might not want The Final Cut in the poorly titled Floyd box, but it's there and if you skip it, you're missing the point.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Considering Stockhausen

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns it's lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Jolting Joe has left and gone away.

Matthew Guerrieri, who, as some of my more constant readers might recall, took me to task over my comments about Hugo Chávez, eulogized the late Karlheinz Stockhausen at Slate. In the course of his obituary,* Mr. Guerrieri had this to say,
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould included among his stable of satirical characters one Karlheinz Klopweisser: donning a long wig, brandishing an enormous electric wand, ruminating about the resonance of organic silence. It wasn't much of an exaggeration. The perception was that, as the summers of love faded, Stockhausen had lost his way, that the leading avant-garde composer of the 1950s and '60s—who gave electronic music a soul and made the arid calculations of serialism dazzlingly, confrontationally vivid—had gone off the psychedelic deep end. Once, prefacing some typically esoteric statement, Stockhausen himself inadvertently summed up critical opinion. "At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical," he warned. "Most people have no intention of following me to this level."
Whenever someone like Stockhausen dies, it is usually time to ponder "legacies" and "influence." I would say, if pressed, that Karlheinz Stockhausen, despite Glenn Gould's withering parody, was the one avant-garde composer who didn't lose his way.

In the common understanding of classical music, which is "Bach and Beethoven because it's great study music," (as opposed to music deserving great study) Stockhausen is a non-entity. No "The Greatest Classical Music in the World" CD will include him, nor will there ever be a Chill with Stockhausen disc released to the masses. Even for the cognoscenti, who might know his name and be able to remember that Stimmung and Gruppen were his 'big ones,' he is elusive. His music is not performed all that much, for various reasons, and the Stockhausen-Verlag, the best source for his music, doesn't have a wide distribution. He is known for being 'an important composer,' but his compositions aren't that well-known. There are not, like it or not, outside of schools of music and the hyper-musically-literate classical cognoscenti, that many people who even think about Karlheinz Stockhausen. This might be contradicted by others, so I'll shut the criticism down now: Being on Sgt. Pepper's is, to the youth of today, like being on the Moon. Yeah, it's probably a big deal, but we have other priorities.

Still, I don't know that Stockhausen ever lost his way.

Look at Pierre Boulez, the holy terror of the musical world almost as soon as he appeared on the scene. He hasn't composed in the last twenty-five or thirty years so much as he has revised works composed in the 1970s. That's not fair: he has written stuff since 1979, but, for a moment, consider his salad days from 1950 (or so) until 1980. You have Le marteau sans maître, Pli selon pli, the third piano sonata, Eclat/Multiples, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, ...explosante-fixe... and the like. Even then, the third sonata is unfinished (and has been for fifty years), Eclat is fragmentary, and ...explosante-fixe... underwent a couple of major revisions. His career has since been one of contention for the title of The World's Greatest Living Conductor, The World's Most Important Composer, and the general dominance over the musical scene. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is an example of the decline of the avant-garde.

Look at some other luminaries: Bruno Maderna died young. Berio and Nono are both dead, and made their biggest contributions forty or so years ago. Hans Werner Henze just premiered an opera (Phaedra), but the days of Versuch über Schweine, Das Floß der Medusa, Kammermusik, and In memoriam: Die weisse Rose are long gone, too. It is no secret that, as dawn goes down to day, so has the 1950s/60s avant-garde gone down to the annals of musical history (Sine ira et studio, perhaps - perhaps not). Boulez, ever the most power-obsessed, managed to stay important and relevant, even as people forgot why they originally considered him important or relevant. That's the thing: the vanguard fell back and became company commanders, then brigade commanders, then division commanders, and - finally - irrelevant statesmen. That, or they dropped the colors on the field, changed uniforms, and started fighting a different battle.

Not, though, Stockhausen. He maintained some degree of relevance by doing whatever it was he did. He didn't lose his way because he was never on the map.

Now, frankly, I found his blather about Sirius and the stupid cosmology thrust forth aus Licht, so to speak, just that - stupid. His music, too, is not always my cup of tea. Still, I cannot assert that Stockhausen was picked up and blown about by the winds of style. For whatever reason, he stuck to his metaphorical guns. That deserves some credit. Indeed, Stockhausen remained solidly a member of the avant-garde, only because he was off the map to begin with. To be entirely fair, I don't know if it could be said that he was at the forefront of the field. That sort of implies that he was moving in the same direction. I don't think he was.

When considering legacies, there is the most objective one: will a composer have an influence on the field, beyond his life? For Herr Stockhausen, I don't think so. How does one take up a mantle like his? Music has moved beyond even what he studied and developed at the beginning of his career - minimalism, post-minimalism, and other musical grammars have replaced post-Webernian serialism. He was sufficiently out of the mainstream to have too many disciples and heirs-apparent.

No, Stockhausen's legacy - unlike the chameleon-like one of Pierre Boulez - is one of a man who did his own thing. He clearly didn't care that it wouldn't have been popular. It clearly wasn't. When the 1950s/60s serialist vanguard was collapsing, he chose to make music that he wanted to make - some of it was good, some downright awful, but it was always his.

That's enough for me, regardless of my subjective judgment.

*I also recommend the obituary of Ike Turner by Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Schiff's Beethoven (vol. 5)

I have not followed András Schiff's recent Beethoven cycle very closely. For various reasons, I made my choice to watch Mitsuko Uchida's back-to-front (and slower) cycle. Of Schiff, though, I have his opp. 26, 27, 28, 31, and 53 sonatas (i.e., nos. 12-18 and 21). It wasn't until today, listening to his Waldstein (op. 53), that I really began to like what he has done. His engaging and intelligent lecture on that sonata - available at the Guardian online source as a download well worth your time - might color my impression, though.

Schiff is solidly middle-of-the-road with his tempi. I'll use the Waldstein for an example. Wilhelm Backhaus' 1958 recording for Decca, his stereo integrale being my reference set, blazes through the first movement, shaving a minute off the standard timing (about 10 minutes). Indeed, Backhaus flies through the piece as a whole, being the fastest in the first two movements of my five or so versions, with Schnabel and Paul Komen (on fortepiano) catching up in the last one. Schiff's closest timing is also his contemporary, Paul Lewis on Harmonia Mundi. Both have very reasonable timings and neither of them feel like they are dragging or rushing the music to make some sort of statement.

I guess the reason why Schiff's Waldstein (as well as the op. 31 sonatas) is so endearing to me is because it seems well-judged in every regard. Schiff, though less so now than 25 or so years back, can seem a little mannered at times, but I prefer that to a wild stereotypically Romantic performance. This is an inapt metaphor, but it will have to do: think of solo music - especially violin or piano literature - as a novel. The performer is, then, a translator of sorts. Schiff eschews a deeply personalized translation, preferring to get as close as possible to the author's original language. That's not to say that it isn't personal, listening to his lecture on the Waldstein, in particular, will show as much, but it isn't an idiosyncratic or quirky performance. Schiff, as far as I can tell, places himself at the service of Ludwig van Beethoven, as opposed to taking Beethoven's score as an opportunity for showy virtuosity. Schiff's sparkling wit (though, it can tend toward the dry) shows through from time to time, but never to the detriment of Beethoven's work. It is for the best that Schiff is as experienced, mature, and talented as he is. Paul Lewis, who has another great cycle, has his positive factors, but Schiff seems to have edged him out in the works which I have heard.

Also, ECM's packaging deserves note. When issues and reissues are becoming showy, gaudy mini-shrines to the favored artist (Lang Lang's recent Beethoven concerto disc being particularly egregious - to the point of gag-inducing), the simplicity and tastefulness of the ECM release is much welcomed. A simple, minimalist cover with an abstract painting; intelligent and informative liner notes (a 'conversation' with Schiff), and plain CDs. I don't know if this was the intent, but it certainly seems as though the set is really all about the music. That, I can appreciate.

A set well worth the effort to acquire, and - if found - a splendid Christmas gift.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Still impressed with the DG Web Shop

I've now bought some more things from the DG Web Shop. I am going to call the match-up between the newcomer and the well-established iTunes Music Store in favor of the former right now.

The back catalog available from DG is just too impressive. You can get two of the Herbert von Karajan Wiener Staatsoper releases (1963's Tannhäuser and 1964's Die Frau ohne Schatten), for example, which were never really available here in the States. The iTMS has a good back-catalog selection (provided, in part, by ArkivMusic), but nothing like DG's. There are some recordings, like Sinopoli's Bruckner 8th, that I would like to see, but that's a minor quibble over a very specialized recording.

The prices, too, are reasonable - as I mentioned. They are within three or four dollars of iTMS at the outside. That is not nearly enough of a difference to be a deal-breaker one way or the other. Price some of this stuff online, if you like, and you'll see that you're getting a deal either way.

Of course, the sound-quality and subsequent downloading once you've bought your music are great benefits to the DG shop. The Apple store is too variable (even stuff in the same series on the same label vacillates between 128 kbps and 256 kbps) and once you've got it, that's it, as far as Apple is concerned. DG's store is friendlier to the consumer in both regards: 320 kbps and more than one download. I assume that there is a limit to the latter, but I don't know.

If you want to do online music, and you should at this point, even if the files are lossy (and I should explain why at some point in the future), DG is the way of the future and the way to go. I can only hope that Universal opens similar stores for Decca, Philips, and the rest of the Universal Classics properties. EMI has its deal with Apple, so I imagine the only way to get high-bitrate, legal EMI downloads is to go through iTMS, but if DGG, Philips, and Decca hit the US market - game over for classical.

There's just too much good stuff in the Universal stables to deal with Apple's weird proprietary concerns and inconsistent bitrate. Universal doesn't stand to lose anything by throwing a bunch of data on the mighty interweb. I assume that most of those recordings have already more than paid for themselves in hard-media form, or will soon, so its likely pure profit. Everybody, in that case, wins.

I like the DGWS, probably more now than I did before, if you hadn't noticed.

Monday, December 03, 2007

...I'll clean it up myself, I guess

Matthew Guerrieri, responding to my post responding to his post responding, in part, to another post of mine, had this to say,
My suspicion is that the modern iteration of the unwashable stain is a hangover from the rise of Nazi Germany. Many decent people chose to take a charitable view of Hitler for too long, with disastrous results—as a result, our reflex is to believe the worst of any even mildly evil figure, and morally quarantine ourselves.
I recommend the whole post, since it seems to be a respite from the stridency and sort of frantic rhetoric that taints pretty much every side of this debate. Myself included.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

I've been uptight and made a mess...

Another voice joins the chorus of those bothered by my (among others) criticism of Gustavo Dudamel, his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and the media fervor over the same (in addition to the Chávez government).

Darcy James Argue once had this to say, in the comments section of Mr. Guerrieri's post, which I dealt with below, beforehand, I should note, he called this "intemperate," (no kidding)
Thanks for this. It has been, frankly, depressing to see so many in Classical Blogdonia make transparently... (I'm afraid there is no other word) retarded arguments, holding Dudamel and the SBYO to standards of conduct not observed by any other artist in the history of mankind.

So fine -- while we're at it, let's ream out Duke Ellington for not publicly denouncing American apartheid while touring on the State Department's dime. Because Duke was a big fucking hypocrite for acting as the cultural ambassador for a nation that systematically surpressed the rights of hs people... is that how we're rolling now?

And are the people criticizing Dudamel and the SBYO really so stupid that they cannot wrap their minds around the idea of being proud of your country while being perhaps somewhat ambivilent about your government? I don't think so. Instead, I think those people are making the kind of self-evidently moronic bad-faith arguments that would make Fox News producers blush.
Fair enough. I do trust that Mr. Argue, though, is aware that Wilhelm Furtwängler was subjected to and made to account to similarly high standards of conduct, standards that pretty well train-wrecked his career (more so in the United States than in Europe) from 1945 to his death in 1954. Would I compare a tin-pot Latin American strongman and his grasping ambitions to an organization on the shortlist for "most evil of all time," though such senseless measuring ignores the inconceivable human toll of such an organization (Viz. Günter Grass' Im Krebsgang)? Probably not. But to say that no one has been held to similar standards is, and I am sorry to be so blunt, just not entirely accurate. No one who stays, so to speak, can live up to the standards. Why? Because staying is the problem. Leaving is the only choice for people confronted by such situations, regardless of what they leave behind when they leave. If Furtwängler's argument that he stayed to save culture for those who needed it most didn't hold cultural water, even if the denazification tribunal found it acceptable, then why should any similar argument hold?

In direct response to Mr. Argue's comment, though, I have this to say: So what? I certainly don't see much ambivalence coming out of the SBYO. The only argument is that they could be wearing their national colors in the same spirit as the protesters who wave the Venezuelan flag. You can be ambivalent about your government and still love your country, God knows I'm walking proof of that much, but you first have to be ambivalent about your government. That means doing something about it. Simple, I know, and I wouldn't have thought such a statement necessary before becoming a bit-player in this blogoconflict.

Now, I further suppose that I am just making more "self-evidently moronic bad-faith arguments that would make Fox News producers blush" by answering Mr. Argue's latest post, but I am apparently self-evidently a moron, so I don't feel too bad about that. How could I? In the course of his critique, he had this to say,

Have any of the critics and bloggers writing about the Kirov Orchestra's current tour mentioned how they are troubled by Gergiev's "direct line" to Putin? (Especially given the farce of a Russian election currently underway?) Has anyone asserted: "Supporting [Gergiev], his [Kirov] orchestra, and other [Russian] cultural products is akin to saying that we love the produce of a nascent dictatorship"?

Anyone? Anyone?

I do not like to play the "if you are outraged about this, why aren't you outraged about that" game. But in this case, the parallel is too clear and the double standard too glaring to let pass without comment.
I do so assert as of this moment, since Mr. Argue is quoting me. I am personally more worried about Putin resurrecting the Soviet empire and saying nice things about Stalin than anything a puffed-up, self-important potentate (who wouldn't be at square one if not for his oil money) being just as undemocratic. Indeed, Putin's decision to seek the premiership after his presidency ends is likely the first tolling of the death knell of Russian democracy. In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, the centerpiece article "Gorby's Choice" wonders in the subhead, "He brought democracy to Russia. So why is he backing Putin, the man undoing his legacy?"

I could answer this in a broader context of Russian nationalism, which - in the modern era - was institutionalized by Stalin, despite being a Georgian and surrounded by Georgian retainers, who allowed Mikhail "Papa" Kalinin to serve as president of the Soviet Union, since it was necessary to appease the nationalist tendencies of Russia, despite the cosmopolitan trends of Marxism-Leninism. What's more, Stalin's Russian nationalism became stronger and more virulent (Doctors' Plot, anyone? The Anti-Semitic Purges ring a bell?) after 1945. Putin seems to have focused on and tapped into that nationalism, which inclines most rank-and-file Russians to support him, even as he tank-parades back to the glory days of Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Suslov.

I digress.

Mr. Argue is bothered by a double standard. I don't see a double standard at work here. No one is hauling the Kirov around, which makes a strongly pro-Soviet (and not just run-of-the-mill Soviet: hardcore, brutally repressive, and genocidal Stalinist) statement with its name, by the way, and touting it as a good thing. No one is arguing that the Kirov is somehow a force for social good and proof that musical education works. No one, no matter how benighted, holds the Kirov up as evidence that Russia is doing something right. Where's the problem? There is a problem with Moscow, Gergiev's relationship with Putin, and what's happening in Russia today, but it's a different problem on one level than Dudamel and the SBYO.

Arguing that Chávez and his regime, of which Dudamel and his band are unquestionably part and for which they are cultural representatives, is not as bad as Putin is specious. It's a big "So what?" Any assertions about Putin and Gergiev have no bearing on any assertions about Dudamel and Chávez. They might be the same assertions, but that does not imply that the boundaries are not closed. Conflating the two questions is part of a bigger argument that no one seems to want to have, but to which many seem to want to allude: What is the moral duty of an artist in a repressive regime? I've made my answer, and I apply it equally.

I see the defenses of Dudamel et al. as being based on the emotional aspect of El Sistema: Chávez is bad, true, but children are getting a chance, so how bad is he? The other option is that folks aren't all that bothered by what's happening in Venezuela, which option is so egregious that I wouldn't dream of imputing it to anyone. I'll just assume that the first option is the rationale at work. My logic, below, still holds. You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It's just that simple. You can't do it with Putin, either, but I don't see that argument made.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Your move, Apple

After seeing the DG Web Shop go online, I couldn't resist. I bought Cheryl Studer's Strauss Vier letzte Lieder, coupled with Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder and the usual Tristan combo. I picked it up for $10.99, and considering it goes for $38.99 at a major web retailer (plus S&H), I was happy for the bargain.

Apple is in trouble.

You buy the music. You pay for it. You download the ZIP file (or the individual tracks, using the download manager if you're so inclined. I like ZIP files for music). You add the decompressed 320 kbps MP3 files to your music software of choice (iTunes for me). You enjoy.

The sound is good. A.C. Douglas isn't kidding when he says it's CD-quality. I like to think I know good sound and have reasonable equipment for its reproduction. Really, once you get over 192/256 kbps, you start getting excellent playback. In my book, on my headphones, 320 kbps is pretty darned good. I would rather see FLAC downloads (which, of course, can be compressed into any bitrate you want), and Apple start supporting FLAC natively on Mac iTunes, but that's another day.

DG/Universal has squared the circle. DRM-free, high-bitrate, easily downloaded albums, many of which are either out-of-print or hard-to-find? Playable on any platform? Any portable player? Add to this competitive price, especially with the low US dollar at the moment, and you have the perfect storm. I would hope that Universal moves to put more and more of its various holdings' catalogs online in such a brilliant fashion.

Ladies and gentlemen, if this picks up and catches on, I daresay we're seeing a paradigm shift in (1) how online music downloads are treated, and (2) how major labels approach a major profit sector. As to the latter, think about it. No costs other than putting 1s and 0s on the interweb. This model makes sense.

DRM-laden, low-bitrate, and super-proprietary downloading is in danger. Apple should thank its stars for the iPhone.


I was totally unaware that my comments on President Chávez, Mr. Dudamel, and the rest of that had sparked some controversy.

Until today, when I read this post from Alex Ross, which linked to this post from Matthew Guerrieri's Soho the Dog. Mr. Guerrieri lays down this challenge, which Pliable has answered,
In fact, it's that pose of vague uneasiness that bugs me. For all the delicacy of the political situation in Venezuela, and El Sistema's place in it, the calculus here is not really all that complicated. Do you think the mission and accomplishments of El Sistema are worthwhile? Worthwhile enough to justify Abreu and Dudamel playing nice with Chávez while they cast their net for less fraught, more diversified institutional and financial support? Or is Chávez so awful that reliance on his government is a taint that renders El Sistema's educational achievements worthless? The association benefits Chávez, to a certain extent—but it also benefits 250,000 other Venezuelans, and I would say those benefits are far more real and long-lasting. That's my opinion; yours may be the opposite. But as various constituencies begin to try and replicate the System's model in the U.S. and Europe, I think it's time to actually have an opinion, rather than furrowing one's brow and murmuring inconclusively.
Here is my answer, which I will frame in terms of Mr. Guerrieri's "two salient points,"

First, El Sistema predates Chávez, as pretty much anyone in the position of defending Dudamel et al. will note. Granted. Does that, then, imply some sort of insularity from Chávez' regime and what is going on in Venezuela? If it does, well, that pretty much does my argument in as far as even I am concerned. If it is as isolated and insular as argued, then the regime in power makes no difference. If not, then there is a linkage there that cannot be ignored. Mr. Guerrieri answers my question for me,
So what exactly should Dudamel and Abreu do differently? The orchestra isn't a self-contained touring ensemble, they're the representatives of the entire system, a system that still gets the vast bulk of its funding from the Venezuelan government. When Chávez comes calling, and asks you to record the national anthem for state TV, what do you do? Jeopardize the entire program in order to express your displeasure? [bold mine - PJS]
That is what they call a close and substantial relationship, and it goes a good distance to showing that there isn't enough distance between the regime and the group. Why should this matter? Simple: if start excerpting parts of an otherwise-unpleasant regime, where does one draw the line? Can one even draw a line? In my mind, it's roughly akin to saying "[Pick a historically odious regime] wasn't all bad, as they did [pick a not-bad program]." Think about it. Do a proof by contradiction: assume regime X is bad and that "not bad" is equivalent to "good," from the Law of the Excluded Middle; program Y, which is a part of regime X, is not bad; therefore, our assumption must be wrong, so regime X is good.

I am not at all prepared to call any of a whole host of governments around the world "good," and I am equally not prepared to accept any logic that forces me to do so.

As to Mr. Guerrieri's second salient point, I sort of slid into it toward the end of the above argument. Now, before I am taken to task as insensitive, ignorant, or whatever else anyone can and might call me for that, let me say this (the self-defense part): Do I believe that President Chávez has done what he can to pervert this organization and make it serve his own ends? I don't know, but it wouldn't surprise me. Such projects make otherwise reprehensible characters look almost decent. As long as he is allowed, from necessity or otherwise, to use such a program to serve as a PR face to a regime, whatever good is done by the program is abrogated. I will answer the question directly: As long as it is used to put a happier face on a regime with a troubling program, it doesn't help anyone. Least of all 250,000 Venezuelans who are getting an education so a near-dictator can look a little better in the United States and Europe.

What do I know, however? Only history can show if I saw through the smiles or if I was just a paranoid reactionary, ready to indict innocents for imagined crimes at a moment's notice. I know what I think, and I know what I see; using Art Garfunkel's words, "and that's all I know."