Dudamel and Bolivar Orchestra spark an audience frenzy at Symphony Center

Mon Dec 03, 2012 at 2:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gustavo Dudamel led the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Sunday at Symphony Center.

When Gustavo Dudamel comes to town, you get the circus as well as the music.

Three videocameras were onstage recording when Dudamel returned to Symphony Center Sunday afternoon—not with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this time but with his other ensemble, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

Much has been written about this unique group of youthful musicians. Founded by Jose Antonio Abreu, the orchestra is made up of players between the ages of 18 and 28 and is the most outward international success of the statewide academic program of the Simon Bolivar Music Foundation in Venezuela.

A cynic could say that when you have 3,000 people on stage, it’s awfully hard not to make a big impact. (Kidding, the orchestra roster Sunday was closer to 150). Still, it is heartening to hear any orchestra let alone such a young one, perform with the kind of galvanic fire and technical polish the young Venezuelans served up Sunday in such a titanic challenge as Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.

Strauss’s last tone poem was his grandest and most expansive. At 50 minutes and scored for monstrous forces (including four harps and 12 offstage horns), it outwardly depicts a single day in the life of the title peak from the opening sunrise to a climber’s ascent, arrival at the summit, and descent (the dogged climbing motif is cleverly reversed for the way down) amid meadows and waterfalls as well as rapids, brambles, and tempests.

Yet Ein Alpensinfonie is much more than a kind of musical Dummy’s Guide to Mountaineering, with the work representing the artist’s (and everyman’s) universal sense of arduous striving and accomplishment against natural obstacles and implacable odds, as well as plumbing deeper philosophical freight.

Significant media criticism on the West Coast indicates that after the relentless initial hype of Dudamel’s appointment, the 31-year-old conductor may be in something of a sophomore slump in the fifth year of his tenure as music director of the LA Phil. Still, there’s no denying that pulling off this vast work as well as Dudamel did Sunday was a genuinely impressive achievement from a conductorial point of view as much as it was a testament to the talent of these extraordinarily gifted young players.

There was barely a square foot of stage visible with Orchestra Hall packed tightly with so many bodies. From the trombone passage heralding the morning’s fading darkness and the ensuing, resplendent account of the sunrise, this was, as early stereo LP labels would put it, “A Sonic Spectacular!” Strauss’s grand climaxes, of which there are plenty, were rich and sumptuous with thrilling weight and sonic impact.

Yet for all the exhilarating volume and brassy climaxes, Dudamel and his charges did not neglect the score’s many quiet and interior moments, as in the awe and stillness atop the mountain—even if the oboe solo was rather literal and plain-spun. After the thrill ride of the first 20 minutes, the second part can often be anticlimactic—-as it was with Daniel Barenboim’s CSO performance and recording in the 1990s—yet Dudamel’s focus and concentration on detail allowed the more reflective moments to resonate as well without lingering pedantically.

The playing from all sections was fiery and often electrifying and was rewarded with an immediate and thunderous ovation with cheering, photo-taking and the waving of Venezuelan flags. Indeed, some of the crowd became raucous and frenzied, with shouted and some screamed encore requests; one vociferous woman was so busy shouting things that Dudamel had difficulty speaking from the stage. (There’s a fine line between audience enthusiasm and appalling rudeness.).

A surging and impassioned encore of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a fitting coda to the quiet end of the Strauss. More curtain calls and to the delight of the crowd, Dudamel rounded out the program with the populist strains of the Venezuelan composer Pedro Elias Gutiérrez’s Alma Llanera, the conductor encouraging the audience to sing along.

Latin music, of course, is one of the mainstays of the Bolivar ensemble, yet the first half of the evening was not quite on the same level.

It would be nice if someone programmed one of Carlos Chavez’s other six symphonies just once, rather than the over-played Sinfonia india (No. 2). At 11 minutes, it’s really more of a glorified overture and while the Mexican composer’s melding of dance rhythms and Copland Lite lyricism is attractive enough, it’s a rather slender piece, though here received ardent advocacy.

Less well known is the Tres versiones sinfonicas of Julian Orbon. Born in Spain and long resident in Cuba, Orbon considered himself a citizen of the island nation. While these three movements are scored with color and finesse—-Dudamel drawing out as many half-tones as he could uncover—like many pieces of its genre and lineage, Orbon’s work is heavy on flash and dance-inspired dynamism without much beneath the surface.

No one can second guess the players’ bona fides in this repertoire. Yet for all the sheen and energy of the playing and the rhythmic acuity of Dudamel’s direction, there was a certain generalized massiveness about the performances, and one wondered if the two Latin pieces wouldn’t have been better served with less Brobdingnagian forces.

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