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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 48: Shostakovich, Bernstein, Latin American sequence including Revueltas and Ginastera. Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London. 19. 8.2007 (ED)



I doubt there has ever been a Prom like this one in the 111-year history of these concerts. What’s more, the only possibility of seeing and hearing its like again is if the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their music director Gustavo Dudamel return in a future season.

Having burst upon the classical music world a few years ago, very much in tandem with the meteoric ascent of Gustavo Dudamel another of today’s baton-wielding wunderkind, to quote another critic, the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela "realises almost any argument imaginable about the life changing power of music to heal social ills. " All the musicians, Dudamel included, know how far music has brought them and convey this through seriousness of approach, hard work and a sense of fun.  The orchestra acts as the beacon for a larger project that involves over 250,000 young Venezuelans directly with playing classical music. The aims are laudable and their achievements are noteworthy. To date, the orchestra appears on a pair of CDs conducted by Dudamel for Deutsche Grammophon, the most highbrow of old-school record companies.

But highbrow company and even highbrow music, such as Shostakovich’s tenth symphony, need not indicate any stuffiness of approach. In taking on one of Shostakovich’s most personal statements – in political and emotional terms – both Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra set themselves quite a challenge.

The opening movement was launched  with gritty determination, keenly argued in its general conception under Dudamel’s anxious baton. And, yet, here is the point: as much through weight of numbers as quality of playing the orchestra made its presence felt across the wide and tortuous arching span that the music creates. The sound was far from what a Russian orchestra would (hopefully) produce, tending more towards the standardised tone of any decent European or American ensemble. In its own terms this says much for the orchestra’s achievements, but for Shostakovich it lacked individuality. Therefore the feeling of the composer’s personal voice which other conductors more readily succeed in securing was largely lost here. The brutal second movement Allegro – possibly a portrait of Stalin – could have done with less finesse and more brutishness from the very start. Yes, Dudamel secured the requisite feeling towards the end, but the terror is the total experience of this music and not the conclusion of it.

As a consequence of his political environment, Shostakovich’s private emotions can seem to emphasise personal solitude or even emptiness all the more. Nowhere is this more apparent than the third movement of the tenth symphony, with its repeated us of his DSCH musical monogram. Its token gestures of happiness, which continue into the last movement also, mask the reality as Shostakovich felt it. Contrast this point with the too frequent feeling that the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra were largely playing too freely for Dudamel  and then the realisation that the music was misunderstood by the orchestra sinks in. One might only wonder how they might have played for a more experienced conductor, rather than under one of their peers.

The Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, however, saw the orchestra on a more certain footing with regard to tone and texture in their playing. Given a no holds barred Prologue, the dances were a keen mixture of romantic longing (in Somewhere and the Finale), whilst elsewhere urgency was Dudamel’s watchword as he drew playing that relished the rhythms and textures of Bernstein’s writing. The Mambo, ‘Cool’ Fugue stood out in this respect. The series of three Latin American dances which followed caught much in the way of authentic flavour – exhibited in the directly emotional playing of the orchestra – but as music each work varied little from another except in beat, dynamic emphasis and duration. The tonal palettes employed by Moncayo, Márquez and Ginastera gave little to distinguish their composer’s identities. Nonetheless each was rapturously received by an audience eager for more.

Encores inevitably followed. With the lights abruptly dimmed the orchestra hastily donned jackets of the Venezuelan national colours before launching into a sequence of upbeat dances including a reprise of Bernstein’s Rumble with the massed shouts given real feeling this time. For many players the final clap trap of the evening was sealed when the double basses started twirling and the all bopped to the music’s infectious beat.

A state of near hysteria set in amongst the audience too and  for some,  the Last Night will go off like a damp squib after this. But was I the only one who felt strangely dissatisfied even a short time afterwards? Having carefully not penned my views too soon after all the high jinks, I think back in vain to recall much in the way of lasting and profound music-making.


Evan Dickerson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle, Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling,  Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, John Leeman, Sue Loder,Jean Martin, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, Raymond Walker, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)

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