Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela

Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Danzón No.2
Estancia – Suite

Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Gustavo Dudamel

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Simón Bolívar Youth OrchestraI suspect that after the debut of the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Proms may have to be categorised like hurricanes. Certainly, this Prom was Category 5.

From the very start, before the concert officially began when the Prommers (for the first time this season, having fallen foul of German, Finnish and Norwegian last week alone) greeted the massed ranks of the young players with a shout in Spanish – something along the lines of “Audience to Orchestra: Hola y recepción a nuestros Proms”, and were applauded and given a standing ovation by the orchestra for doing so.

Decorum was held until the second half, when the infectious rhythms of the Caribbean and Latin-America began to loosen things up. Following the official programme, it was clear that the packed audience would not allow the orchestra to go, but what happened next was a surprise. Off came the orchestra’s black jackets and donned were tracksuit tops in the bright colours of the Venezuelan flag (three horizontal stripes, yellow at the top; blue in the middle with six stars; and red at the bottom), for three encores.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Photograph: Gwendolyn StewartThe final two were exactly in the spirit of the word; reprises of two of the sections heard already (‘Mambo’ from West Side Story and the final dance from Estancia), but first we had a work by a Venezuelan composer, Pedro Elias Gutierrez’s song (here arranged), “Alma Llanera”. But it’s how these instrumentalists play music that is so amazing. We had wind of it the previous night when the even-more astounding Venezuelan Brass Ensemble stood, bent over and wiggled, bumped and ground through Gershwin’s ‘I got Rhythm’, but here whole sections were up and swaying, or holding instruments aloft and waving them.

In the breaks and to rapturous applause there were Mexican waves with instruments (even double basses and tubas) held aloft, while in the Estancia encore the orchestra moved en masse around and even off the platform, still playing as if their lives depended on it: the orchestra’s stamping enhanced the upbeat chords to the main theme. This was truly exhilarating to watch and they then removed their Venezuelan flag tops and threw them, like football players, into the audience.

It was a brilliant riot of an evening. It was also fantastically musical. And, while I wouldn’t favour this well-honed version of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony above the searing ‘Leningrad’ from the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain a couple of weeks ago, there is no doubt that the Simón Bolivar Orchestra deserved to be at the Proms on its musical merits alone.

What I missed in the Shostakovich was any meaning behind the notes; no sense whatsoever of the sheer emotional awakening only possible after the then-recent death of Stalin; nor of the composer’s secret love-affair signified in the recurring horn motif. Certainly the National Youth Orchestra of GB dug deeper to achieve not only spectacular extremes of volume, but also an understanding of the searing nature of the music.

But, regarding the Venezuelans, this is not to criticise the verve, distinction and musicality of their playing. And, the National Youth Orchestra could learn a thing or two from their South American cousins about enjoying the music they play – it will be years before the double bassists of ‘our’ young players will be allowed to swivel their instruments and let their hair down.

Gustavo Dudamel – first among equals (he’s only 26, the upper end of the age-range of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra’s ranks) – conducted without a score throughout, and was always eager to highlight individual players at the end of each piece. The orchestra is so large that most wind and brass personnel changed during the interval for new line-up.

A final couple of thoughts: this extraordinary orchestra and conductor are evidence of the unique power of music in being able to engage a society and completely transform it. Why then, in Britain, have we let our music education go? That we can still produce such good young players is evidenced by our NYO, but in Venezuela the music gets down to so many more levels of society. I’m heartened to hear one Scottish region attempting to run a similar scheme, but where were the politicians at this Prom? If they weren’t there, how can they know what might start getting Britain back on the straight and narrow: the enjoyment and commitment shown by the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.

As one of the Venezuelan flag-jackets hung off a BBC microphone my other thought was about Deutsche Grammophon. Why release Beethoven and Mahler with the orchestra? Surely Bernstein, Moncayo, Márquez and Ginastera would have been better. We need to see and hear such joyful abandon in music-making. Perhaps the BBC can issue this concert on DVD – it was filmed to the very end.

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