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Berlioz, Chopin, Beethoven:  Emanuel Ax (piano), Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Carnegie Hall, 11.11.2007 (BH)

Berlioz: Le carnaval romain Overture, Op. 9 (1843)
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21 (1829)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1807-08)

Normally I would never go hear this resolutely conservative program played by anyone, even known favorites.  But the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and its brilliant young director, Gustavo Dudamel, weren’t known favorites—until this concert.  At about 1:52 p.m., just a few minutes before the concert began, the buzz in the hall was louder than for my previous yardstick, a concert by Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra, which usually draws a heavily Russian audience.  This time the extra-musical portion of the afternoon demanded equal attention.

With some 200 musicians onstage, the effect on the Berlioz was electrifying: within about eight seconds I could tell that we had an unusual afternoon ahead. 
With no score (and none the entire concert), Dudamel bored into the heart of the music immediately, buoyed by the crispness and passion of the playing, by—mind you—16 and 17-year-olds.  What Dudamel “got” immediately is the frenzied craziness of the work and the electricity generated by its sharp contrasts in dynamics, and garrulous orchestration.

The orchestra’s sections would do many professional ensembles proud: strings that have bite (and players that aren’t afraid to dig into the music), pristine woodwinds and brass, and a percussion group that knows when it can cut loose.  Ultimately the go-for-broke reading confirmed that Dudamel knows exactly what he is doing.  As the applause and cheering broke out, latecomers were arriving and walking briskly down the aisles.  A young man behind me fairly fell into his seat and breathlessly asked his friend, ”So how was it?”  The reply: ”Imagine Berlioz himself conducting.”

Initially I was disappointed in the choice of the Chopin Second Piano Concerto, only because for a young ensemble making its debut, it would seem not ideal to show off its capabilities.  I was wrong.  What it did reveal, decisively, is a group of young people able to scale back their sound to accommodate and showcase a soloist.  Yet even cutting back slightly, Dudamel injected new life into a work that can sound shopworn, and Emanuel Ax responded in kind with the grace of a veteran, coupled with gentle surprise, seeing the musical landscape develop around him on the spot.  In the second movement, the orchestra was touching in its fragility.  Yet each time the piano dropped out, the group surged into the foreground, wanting to make the most of its moments.  The finale showed Ax having a grand time with his youthful admirers, and as the crowd again cheered loudly, he quieted everyone down with an elegiac Chopin Waltz in A Minor.

Again, I can’t recall hearing the Beethoven Fifth Symphony detonated with a Mahler-sized ensemble, and with a correspondingly beefy sound.  With stabbing precision, the violinists often leaped out of their chairs on the crack-of-doom downbeats.  But Dudamel is much smarter than some young conductors who might rely solely on loudness: the woodwind solos were as beguiling as they come.  At the opening of the andante con moto, the cellos sang with delicacy, and I was reminded of one of the characteristics of great ensembles: they are able to effect complete mood changes between different movements or between different works.  This was demonstrated even more vividly in the quirky tone of the third movement, which was positively spooky at the end.  The final movement was almost terrifying in its intensity, with the Venezuelan trumpets cresting at every opportunity.  At no time did the thought ”this is a student orchestra” cross my mind.

As the crowd noise again flared up at the end, someone in the first tier unfurled a Venezuelan flag, and shortly the lights dimmed.  When they resumed, the group had donned its now-eponymous jackets using the flag’s motifs, and Dudamel came bounding out of the wings wearing one, too.  The scintillating work that followed turned out to be Arturo
Márquez’s Danzon No. 2 from 1993, a heady mix of lush textures, discreet snaps from wooden blocks and raspy accents from the guiro.  As soon as this ended the group launched what is becoming their signature encore, the “Mambo” from Bernstein’s West Side Story, a tumultuous match for the group’s energy.  The final work, “Malambo” from Ginastera’s Estancia, had the musicians popping up all over the stage, like an orchestral version of “Whack-a-Mole.”  As the melee progressed, the musicians swayed back and forth, inserted samba steps and eventually broke ranks, milling about the stage like some kind of postmodern Latin marching band.  At one hilarious point Dudamel had disappeared into the crowd, with a member of the orchestra on the podium, directing the performance.  This kind of excitement can’t be faked.

Bruce Hodges


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