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Bartók, Shostakovich: Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Carnegie Hall, 12.11.2007 (BH)

Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93 (1953)

There is an especially cruel entrance in the fourth movement of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra for the horns, which have to pluck their note from high on the stave before their descent.  Inevitably I always clench my teeth, waiting for what is often a cracked note to begin the phrase.  It is no small tribute to the abilities of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela that the sequence was executed not only perfectly, but even alluringly.  This was just one of hundreds of details that sprang to life under Gustavo Dudamel’s confident direction in the second of the orchestra’s two concerts here in a sold-out Carnegie Hall.  The basic elements were all in place: an opening of shrouded mystery, and the second and fourth, filled with quirky woodwind choirs, had the conductor coaxing all kinds of hallucinations.  The middle movement, notable for Dudamel’s phrasing, also had the musicians paying keen attention when he asked them for drama and contrast.

Another small detail impressed: Dudamel’s ability to dampen coughing in the audience.  In between each movement, rather than relaxing and lowering his hands completely, he left them at waist-height, ready to plunge ahead.  The audience got the signal, and as a result, the tension was sustained through the entire half-hour—not an insignificant feat.  The restless finale had the conductor almost leaping into the air, along with the players.  I could feel myself beaming, listening to these young people negotiate such a formidable work with such passion, while showing musical instincts and knowledge comparable to many professional ensembles.  During the last few minutes, the intensity seemed almost unbearable, stretched to the breaking point, as Dudamel raced to the work’s splash-filled conclusion.  He runs at top speed, but he has 200 colleagues eager to run with him.

In Bartók’s showpiece, the Venezuelans showed they could probably handle virtually any score in the standard repertory.  Indeed, much has been written about one of the group’s double bass players, Edicson Ruiz, who recently became the youngest player in the Berlin Philharmonic.  So it made perfect sense when after intermission, Dudamel relinquished the podium to Simon Rattle, here for three concerts with the Berliners, who led the ensemble in the fearsome Shostakovich Tenth Symphony.  From my seat I could see Dudamel, now in shirtsleeves, sitting in a box in the first tier, watching Rattle intently.

It could be argued that Rattle elicited even more finesse from the group, who played their hearts out in this laser beam of a symphony.  The vast opening movement, full of contrasts, posed no challenges, nor did the snarling allegro, an extreme test that showed Rattle pushing the group as far as they could go.  Throughout, the piping woodwinds, the full-throttle brass, the energetic percussionists, and the huge contingent of strings (including the dark-hued double bass section from which Mr. Ruiz emerged) played as if the composer himself were urging them on.  If in the end, Dudamel got the more emotional side of the evening, Rattle showed an orchestra fully capable of being coached by someone else.

As the cheering began, Rattle came out a number of times before conferring with the concertmaster about an encore.  After some scurrying around and laughter, the group did an impromptu reprise of Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story, which they had done the previous night.  Although the Venezuelan jackets were nowhere to be seen, there was instrument-twirling, samba-dancing and general controlled mayhem: a huge party erupted onstage.  After a wave of curtain calls, the group left us with an image I will never forget, hoisting their instruments overhead—small, medium or large—in a sea of flutes, violins, trumpets and even cellos.  I confess my eyes were watering.

Bruce Hodges


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