CARACAS Venezuela's classical music superstar Gustavo Dudamel is facing vitriolic criticism from some supporters of the country's political opposition who accuse him of keeping silent during unrest this week that killed three people.
Dudamel, 33, is director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. He is visiting his home country to conduct concerts marking the 39th anniversary of its renowned "El Sistema" music program, which gives classical music training to children from poor neighborhoods.
His visit has coincided with opposition street protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
On Saturday, Dudamel conducted a free "concert for peace" including Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, at the ornate Foreign Ministry building in downtown Caracas.
The opposition accuses the security forces and pro-government militants of attacking peaceful demonstrators in the center of the capital on Wednesday, while the Maduro's administration blames its rivals for the deaths.
Some in the opposition were outraged that the famous conductor did not use his public position to condemn Maduro, interpreting that as support for the leftist government.
"I can't stay silent ... You were playing in a concert while people were massacred," wrote self-exiled Venezuelan classical pianist Gabriela Montero in an open letter to the conductor.
"We've passed the point of no return. Music, ambition and fame count for nothing alongside human suffering," he wrote.
Some hardline opposition supporters used social media to circulate a computer-generated image of Dudamel with his baton raised and blood pouring from his hands, against a backdrop of student protesters being arrested by the police.
"ABSOLUTE NO TO VIOLENCE"
In a brief statement in response to his critics, the conductor said the country's Sistema program represented the value of peace, love and unity.
"It has become the emblem and flag of our country to the world ... we lament (Wednesday's) events," it read. "With our music and with our instruments in hand, we declare an absolute no to violence and a resounding yes to peace."
Dudamel's supporters also weighed into the debate.
Some suggested it was worth his playing the part of a loyal "Chavista," or supporter of the late Hugo Chavez, if that meant continued government funding for El Sistema.
But others said his politics were none of their business.
"Dudamel has no more of a duty to heed to our points of view than anyone else," wrote one pro-opposition blogger, Juan Cristobal Nagel, while conceding that his post on the topic was likely to anger some of his friends.
"Just like we wouldn't want Chavistas to force a political position down our throats, so too should Dudamel enjoy the privilege of freedom to support the cause he might think is better."
Dudamel is the most well-known alumnus of El Sistema, which since the mid-1970s has taught hundreds of thousands of youths, many from poor homes in dangerous slums, to play musical instruments and in orchestras.
Supporters say it gives them discipline, cuts school truancy rates and boosts self-esteem. It currently includes more than 300,000 youngsters playing for 180 orchestras and has inspired similar projects in countries around the world.
(Reporting by Daniel Wallis; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and G Crosse)