Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel – Julián Orbón’s Tres versiones sinfónicas & Mahler 5

Julián Orbón
Tres versiones sinfónicas
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 9 January, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gustavo Dudamel. Photograph: Mark Hanauer from @GustavoDudamel TwitterIt would be easy to dismiss Julián Orbón’s three picturesque sketches, from 1953, but I don’t imagine that the composer set out to do anything but write attractive, easy to hear music, and in that he succeeded. Orbón (1925-1991) was born in Northern Spain, but spent much of his life in Cuba.

Tres versiones sinfónicas is Orbón’s best-known work, and was admired by Aaron Copland. The scoring for a large orchestra is clear and effective, there’s a good deal of rhythmic vitality and also some intriguing sounds. The first piece, ‘Pavana’, has as its starting point music by Luis de Milán, the second is based on a secular vocal work by Pérotin and the third, the shortest (and the weakest), is based on a rapid rhythmic pattern used in African Congolese music. The suite not only made an effective vehicle for the virtuosity of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra (formed by José Antonio Abreu) and the technical prowess of Gustavo Dudamel, but was also a good foil for the Mahler Symphony that formed the second half of the concert.

Mahler 5 has become a favoured work for visiting orchestras, and local ones, and it certainly enables them to show off their expertise. And that, really, was the final impression here. There was very little to object to in Dudamel’s conducting, idiomatic and faithful to the music’s spirit, if up to a point, though an 11-minute Adagietto was on the long-drawn-out side. Elsewhere too his tempos veered to the slow – effective enough at first though becoming ponderous as time went on, and the finale lumbered along in a way that over-exposed its sectional construction.

But throughout the performance it seemed that Dudamel’s penetrating mind and consummate technique was more in evidence than was his heart: the playing was pretty perfect and of the utmost brilliance, with the large string sections producing some beautiful sounds, yet it all seemed contrived, a bit brash and somewhat exhibitionist. A repeat of Orbón’s finale acted as an encore.

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