Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/Dudamel – The Rite of Spring

Mediodia en el llano
Santa Cruz de Pacairigua
The Rite of Spring

Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gustavo DudamelThe fame of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its conductor Gustavo Dudamel has spread like wildfire; here was another concert completely sold-out (the audience including Ken Livingstone, James Naughtie, John Eliot Gardiner and Paul Daniel), a long queue for returns, and an area set aside for people to watch the gig on a big screen. I had a different neighbour for the concert’s two halves, both mobile-phone junkies, the first one checking her phone and sending texts during the music, the other lady straight into a conversation the moment the Stravinsky was over. Therapy needed!

Of course, what has been happening in Venezuela is pretty remarkable, the vision of José Antonio Abreu “founder, builder and promoter of the Venezuelan System of Youth and Child Orchestras”. The current result is a world-class youth orchestra (but only comparable with similar ensembles), outsize, vibrant, hugely talented and deeply committed.

The SBYO and Dudamel have captured the public’s imagination – all to the good as far as generating interest in classical music and attending concerts is concerned. This particular event (‘concert’ is to small a word for it!) was the culmination of the Orchestra’s Southbank Centre residency, but was not the last word on programme planning (potentially too much percussion and rhythm for one evening!) and with a reversal of the advertised order that proved mistaken.

The Rite of Spring was meant to be first. It should have stayed there, for it proved a leveller. Although it was generally well played, Dudamel’s conducting of this seminal masterpiece was no more than speeding through it (the metrical changes of the concluding ‘Danse sacrale’ went for little) or dragging the slower sections. Otherwise there was little atmosphere, rhythms lacked point, details were glossed over, and there was little sense of choreography or narrative – not at these speeds. In short, The Rite was reduced to an orchestral showpiece, and it’s rather more than that.

Despite the huge number of strings the SBYO runs to (including 14 double basses, 12 were listed), the brass and percussion dominated and were sometimes crude. Dynamics could and should have been more varied, the quieter ones even quieter. The playing was well-drilled if not always pristine, and the guy charged with the opening bassoon solo has doubt played it better than on this occasion. Dudamel has been shot to fame; he’s confident, charismatic and gifted – but he has some way to go as an insightful and penetrating interpreter. This careered-through account did The Rite few favours, but cued a standing ovation nonetheless.

Had the second half remained as intended – the South American fare – the concert would have ended on a higher plane. Revueltas’s Sensemayá was the pick of the selection, sophisticated and intricate, darkly colourful, if relentless even over its short course. Estévez’s Mediodia offered some respite in its melody and evocation (although the latter veered more to Respighi’s influential Italy) – less so in the closing silence that some clapped into – and we stayed in Rome (illustratively) for the more reflective sections of the Castellanos; otherwise this was another festive and carnival number, musical invention spread rather thin despite being played with such devotion.

That mood, post-Rite, continued with the (unidentified) first encore. That was enough! Which means I missed ‘Nimrod’ from Enigma Variations (“rushed and lush”, a friend later informed by text) and reprises of the Ginastera and Bernstein extras from a few nights earlier. How many of the people in this diverse audience will also support the appearance by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain on the afternoon following this Venezuelan extravaganza (also Royal Festival Hall)?

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