sat 20/07/2024

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Concert 2, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Concert 2, RFH

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela Concert 2, RFH

A second encounter with the Venezuelan orchestra is both exhilarating and exhausting

Gustavo Dudamel brings the best out of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, even if sometimes it's a bit too muchNohely Oliveros

The Simón Bolívar orchestra is the musical answer to the question “Would you like to supersize that?” A youth orchestra in bulk, if no longer in name, the ensemble has made a signature of its heft, making repertoire work on its own terms rather than adjusting itself to fit. On Thursday night, full-fat Beethoven and Wagner that threatened to overspill in the generosity of their gestures, so how would the orchestra fare with Mahler’s mighty Fifth Symphony?

If I say that the Simón Bolívar Orchestra are not an ensemble you really want to hear two nights running that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The energy, the physical hit of their attack is thrilling and exhilarating, and if it’s also exhausting then it’s hard to hold that against them. Compare these young musicians to that other high-profile orchestra-with-a-cause, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose stiff, aloof approach to performances can be so maddening, and the Venezuelans come out streets ahead. Nevertheless, what remains of this particular orchestra’s gimmick – the bright tracksuits and big smiles that have been internalised these days – doesn’t quite survive repeated encounters at such close quarters.

Although he gave us plenty of shade, the conductor couldn’t find quite enough light to temper it

The Mahler was certainly exciting, in the kind of way a Michael Bay film is exciting. The weight applied to all gestures was equal, raising emotion to a pitch it was hard to maintain. Faced with sustaining engagement in an everything’s-at-stake musical car-chase for 70 minutes, it was hard not to step back, however unconsciously.

The orchestra’s big, glossy sound, anchored by 12 double basses, is a glorious tool for Dudamel to deploy, but although he gave us plenty of shade, the conductor couldn’t find quite enough light to temper it. The dance-rhythms that briefly infect the Funeral March were matronly, never quite releasing into the elegance that makes them so unsettling, and though the Adagietto was refined, it never found that risky beauty it needs to counter the violent certainty elsewhere in the symphony. Thanks to superb brass and woodwind sections the final Rondo was a joy, a proper moment of arrival gilded by a collective sense of unanimity that had been lacking elsewhere, both in this concert and the night before.

The evening opened with the Tres versiones sinfonicas by Cuba’s Julián Orbón. Even if you didn’t know the composer had studied with Copland it wouldn’t take long to work it out. The arching melodies in unison strings, the modal harmonies, the rhythmically pulsing brass – it’s Copland with a Spanish accent, and no worse for it. Each movement explores a different historical period, composer or idiom – homages that come close to pastiche, but in which the composer’s own identity never fully dissolves.

It’s attractive, approachable music, and the Bolívars sold it in style. The Revueltas-inspired dance led, unexpectedly, by the xylophone, transformed the band into a clicking, clattering mechanism, an automaton powered by an unseen force, while the central "Organum-Conductus" gave the strings space to flower into some of the warmest tones of these two concerts.

There was much to like here, perhaps too much, too carefully crafted. I’m all for energy, for showmanship and commitment, but sometimes it’s good to play things just a little bit cooler than this ebullient, over-the-top band are – as yet – capable.

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