Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel at Royal Festival Hall – Rituales Amerindos & Eine Alpensinfonie

Rituales Amerindos
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 26 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The “Youth” tag is now dropped for “Symphony”. It’s clear the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra wants to be taken seriously, keen to shed the party routine that’s become rather tired. A younger generation is coming through Jose Antonio Abreu’s much-lauded El Sistema, but the Bolivars remain the flagship ensemble: an adult orchestra ready to be counted among the best.

Abreu was in attendance at the second of the SBSO’s Royal Festival Hall concerts, part of Shell Classic International, witnessing the fruits of his vision in a programme featuring two scores separated by almost a century. First was the work of 42-year-old Argentinean Esteban Benzecry, whose three-part musical evocation of pre-Colombian culture, Rituales Amerindios, had the giant orchestra fluttering and shimmering in what might have been a non-credited UK premiere. Fourteen double basses graced the stage, along with huge numbers in other departments, but Benzecry did a lot to keep the volume down with his imaginatively orchestrated triptych. The appeal, though, was in its surface: undeniably dazzling but with little below the alternation of careful textures and brassy ritual.

Gustavo Dudamel. Photograph: Mathew ImagingThe colossal forces remained for Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, music that revels in the heady excess of depicting mountain scenery – weather and all – with an orchestra groaning at the limits of practicality. But it also charts a clear path through the fog, ice and thunder encountered en route, giving us some of Strauss’s most brilliantly vivid descriptive writing. Night shrouds the introduction and returns to veil the close, but it wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings for orchestra and conductor. Strauss piles up the sounds in the string parts, creating the kind of effect you’d get by depressing three octaves’ worth of notes on the piano with your foot on the sustaining pedal. But that glorious curtain of nocturnal gloom barely registered. From there, Gustavo Dudamel failed to convincingly build the crescendo that leads to the first appearance of the sun but, once reached, the climax revealed the bright and honeyed tones of the trumpets. The horns also impressed with their unified refinement and the low brass shook the hall with rasping force, but the strings never produced the volume that their numbers promised (more a quantity than a body of sound) or total unity.

Dudamel resisted extremes of tempo; Strauss’s directions, after all, call for small step changes rather than aggressive manhandling. He and the orchestra were at their considerable best when tackling the loudest and most invigorating sections of the work, such as the tremendous climax heard at the mountain’s summit and the ensuing storm. For the ‘Vision’ the strings were finally able to deliver a fevered intensity to match their forces, and the slow retreat into the shadow of night dispelled the relative disappointment of the very beginning. But the whole suggested that Strauss’s is an idiom not entirely mastered by the Venezuelan players. A certain ebb and flow in the phrasing was missing and a lot of the material given to the strings remained stuck at the same dynamic.

There were no multi-coloured jackets for the encore, but a surprise guest. Bryn Terfel, about to begin his Brynfest at Southbank Centre, arrived decked in a horned helmet. Sure enough, Wagner followed. Terfel’s mighty voice declaimed and flowed in an extract from Das Rheingold while he waved a spear around.

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