Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel at Royal Festival Hall – Egmont & Eroica … The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), Op.34
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gustavo Dudamel. Photograph: Mathew ImagingThis was an action-packed concert in more ways than one. I arrived in the Royal Festival Hall to the sounds of vigorous booing and clapping. Surely the concert wasn’t over? And isn’t that rather an extreme reaction to the world-famous, and world-imitated, social reclamation-via-music scheme El Sistema? As it happened, Green demonstrators had infiltrated the RFH and unfurled huge “Greenwash” banners in protest against Shell Oil Company, which has been putting its money where its ears are sponsoring the Shell Classic International series, of which this Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra “Sounds Venezuela” sojourn at Southbank Centre is part. The protest was fairly polite, the banners were packed away, and the elfin figure of Jude Kelly, the Centre’s artistic director, teetered gingerly on in vertigo-inducing high heels to give a welcoming speech singling out José Antonio Abreu, in the audience, for praise and thanks.

Abreu founded El Sistema more than thirty years ago, and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, which dropped the “Youth” component of its title a while ago, is its flagship. This was its second concert in this UK visit, arriving fresh from the damp “Big Noise” event last Thursday shared with 130 Scottish schoolchildren in a field in the lea of a glowering Stirling Castle. That concert officially kicked off the London 2012 Festival – our cultural Olympiad – and this London occasion shared the same programme, minus the 130 wee ones who had so memorably blowed, scraped and bashed their way through the ‘Rondeau’ from Purcell’s music for Abdelazer – the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra slimmed down, as it were, to the gargantuan band, some of whose players are now in vigorous middle age, that squeezed-on to the RFH platform.

The last time I heard the SBSOO and Gustavo Dudamel was at BBC Proms 2011. It seemed that their combined approach was much freer and more flexible, with the orchestral tone not flagged up in such primary colours. The solidity and depth of the string-sound at the start of the Egmont Overture was quite something – not surprising, when you have 100 players at your disposal – and with first and second violins all grouped on the left and a squadron of double bassists (a mere ten in the Beethoven works) bringing up the rear, there was a noticeable spread of sound, which supported an astonishing detonation of energy and volume in the fanfares of the coda.

Alarmingly, even more players were crammed-on for the Britten. Any worries that the forces would compromise its fine detail were quickly dispelled, Dudamel directing its deceptively easy-listening conflation of style and mood with affectionate mastery. The solo displays were the best-possible calling-card these players could deliver – wonderfully dizzy flutes, a clarinet passage that sounded like Saint-Saëns going on the razzle with Gershwin, a duet for bassoons that completely got the joke about the instrument’s complicated character, a serenely plumy and beautifully fluid harp solo, a discreet awareness of the violas being gently sent up. The Fugue went at a terrific lick, which the orchestra took in its virtuoso stride, and when Purcell’s tune reappeared, with trombones and trumpets raised up and the fourteen (!) double bassists turning to face the audience, once again you were dumbfounded by Britten’s astonishing, infectious originality and by the passion that the SBSO’s playing can generate.

Forces were reduced for the ‘Eroica’, but they were still pretty huge. You had to admire, though, the player’s response to the style of the symphony that opened the door onto the Romantic Movement. It was a pity there was no first-movement exposition repeat, which makes more sense of the extended coda, and Dudamel let the music sag a bit in the ‘Funeral March’, but otherwise this was a memorably fleet-footed performance, with a remarkable atmosphere of liberated cohesion among the players, who managed Beethoven’s crucial accents and irregular phrasing with ease; and when the finale was really motoring, it reminded you that there is nothing like an orchestra cruising along at the top of its form.

There was one, well-judged encore, a transparent, numinous performance of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

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