sat 20/07/2024

BBC Proms: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel

BBC Proms: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel

The Venezuelans colour Mahler a dark, Latin-American red, at some cost to heart

Gustavo Dudamel and the Venezuelans: colouring the music a dark blood-red Photo: Chris Christodolou

Marley & Me: that’s the film about living with a neurotic dog, out now on DVD. And Mahler & Me? It could be the Gustavo Dudamel story. Conducting Mahler was what first brought everyone’s favourite Venezuelan to world attention, when he won the 2004 Mahler Competition in Bamberg.

Given the turbo-charged excitement always stirred by his Simon Bolívar players – no Youth Orchestra now, mark you, but a Symphony Orchestra, grown-up, professional – this Prom visit would have been sold out long ago even if they were playing Glazunov. But it’s Mahler, that neurotic dog Mahler!

It’s also the Resurrection Symphony – the Mahler symphony above all others that the Bolívar players and every beneficiary of Venezuela’s music education system, El Sistema, could possibly take personally. Mahler’s symphony grandly escorts us from life’s batterings, through death to eternal life. El Sistema has done something similar, if more domestic, by taking these players and many others from living on crime and drug-spattered streets to living with dignity and hope. And frequent flyer miles: in this world it’s all or nothing.

On the Bolivars’ previous Prom visit in 2007 their electricity almost burned down the Albert Hall. Here, too, the energy was immense, even without the mambo. As soon as the tremulous strings entered, tension crackled, promptly enlarged by the growling parade of 14 double basses, rising up the platform’s steps – the kind of showy positioning usually seen only in Hollywood films. Dudamel and his players quickly showed that even when transported to Mahler’s Vienna they could still sound brashly Latin-American, and colour the music a dark blood-red. Fortissimo chords sat like chunks of raw meat; accenting was heavy and sudden. Lurch, lurch: that’s the way the argument went in the first movement and thereafter, with numerous unplanned extra lurches from the trumpeters’ fluffs. For whatever reason – heat, bad luck, Old Man Fate – they didn’t have a good night.

Nor, I felt, did Dudamel himself in the matter of speeds. The second movement’s gravely polite dance was sweetly played, but it came so very slowly. In some of its pauses I could have boiled an egg, a state of affairs that tottered back in the epic last movement’s fanfares and the tortoise crawl of the gorgeously mellifluous National Youth Choir of Great Britain. It’s true enough that Mahler marks the second movement"Nicht eilen" – no rushing. True too that the transfiguring last movement needs grandiosity and space to breathe, especially in the merry-go-round of the Albert Hall acoustic. But Dudamel’s slow speeds came perilously close at times to stopping all momentum and shattering a symphony already heterogeneous enough into a pile of fragments. More thinking about the symphony’s long-term structural needs might be in order – if Dudamel of course has the time in his whirlwind career.


Still, let’s not be too crabby. Some of the fragments were very special. I loved the vibrant singing strings streaking through the last movement’s early hurly-burly. The offstage brass made a tremendous contribution, better indeed than the brass on the stage. And the final stretch, with the tortoise crawl abandoned and the choir at maximum power, definitely uplifted your soul and made the Albert Hall shake.

As for the soloists, mezzo Anna Larsson’s despatch of the "Urlicht" movement was very easy to love: tenderly moving, humane, the tone pure and limpid. Her red dress wasn’t bad, either. Alongside, fellow Swede Miah Persson tootled prettily. More than most, this was a performance when we needed the emollient embrace of the human voice, to soften some of Dudamel’s curious bullying ways and give the music-making more glue, more heart.

The capacity crowd, I should say, cheered and cheered and didn’t want the Venezuelans to leave. Who knows, maybe they’re still there, dancing the mambo; I had to retreat to write this review. This extraordinary curate’s egg of a Prom is being televised this Saturday night on BBC Two, with a repeat on 28 August on BBC Four.

The capacity crowd cheered and cheered and didn’t want the Venezuelans to leave. Who knows, maybe they’re still there, dancing the mambo

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They are the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Nothing to do with the National Youth Orchestra at all!

This review is right on the mark, I'm afraid, from what I could garner from my listening point (Radio 3). The first movement dragged so much that only a finer orchestra than this could possibly sustain the sound quality. Then the slow second movement came... I gave up at this point and re-entered for the finale. I think the problems stemmed mainly from Dudamel's choice of tempi and the clunky transitions between them. Unfortunately for them, Jurowski's electrifying recording is still ringing in my ears.

I agree with the review and Peter. I listened at home and just couldn't believe that anyone could mess about with the tempi within movements as much as Dudamel. Even Lenny wouldn't have exaggerated as much as that! Two years ago I went to a CBSO concert of Mahler 2 in Symphony Hall conducted by Andris Nelsons, who was then about the same age as Dudamel is now. Nelsons was superb. He had 4 years with a little-known north German orchestra and the Latvian Opera to perfect his craft and also has been mentored by Mariss Jansons. We had not heard about him until his CBSO appointment was announced 4 years ago, but what a fantastic rise to stardom he's had since then, conducting some of the top orchestras, Royal Concertgebouw, Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics and so on, as well as appearing in top opera houses. Dudamel has been catapulted into stardom, but needs a mentor to advise him!

Completely OFF the mark I'm afraid. In Mahler, tempo relations are of deep import. You can only ever really ascertain whether a tempo drags when you've heard the whole performance, placing the movement in context and I suggest it is Mr Brown the reviewer, not Dudamel, who has not understood the tempi in light of the overall musical argument. Listen again tonight; I can assure you the extreem space of the earlier movements became more understandable in the light of the full symphonic argument. The slow tempos also unnerved me, but this is music designed to stir up deep emotions, and that it was painful owed only to the musical balance and not, as our reviewer suggests, because any musicianship was lacking. Dudamel was also very clever on two counts. Firstly, the slow opening movements shifted the emphasis to the finale - which is, of course, the ideal in almost every symphony from Beethoven to Mahler - and which is of such import in this piece. Mr Brown, please clarify what on earth you mean by Dudamel's 'curious bullying ways'? Besides the fact that Dudamel loves his players as much as they love him, and refused to come to the front at any point to take a bow, instead receiving the applause from within the orchestra, his conducting can only be described as organic. Never bullying. Lastly, is 'tootled prettily' the best description you can offer for the beautiful Miah (not Mia) [corrected with thanks. Ed.] Persson and the sublime floating of those immortal lines at the end? Both sopranos deserve credit, lifting the symphony to new heights just as the texts they sing describe. And what's more, the control in such intense and impassioned music is often lost; some of the greatest singers have struggled with the intensity of these passages. I fear you have missed the most obvious in what Dudamel communicated through this performance or else missed its sheer beauty. A night to remember. (A review to forget)

Sorry, but I also agree with the original review (and I was there). The first movement needs a lighter, faster touch (Klemperer?) otherwise the structure of the symphony becomes too unbalanced and that was how it felt last night

I've dismissed even more notorious conductors (maestro Boulez, if you'd be so kind to come forward...) for playing the 1st mvmt too slow; this time however, I felt the resounding timbres of the orchestra saved it to a certain point. The Simon Bolivar SO are certainly a force. Not the same outcome for the Ländler, its lethargy was already a cruel thing. Instead, I loved the third movement, the flute had such amazing tweets. I see a lot of love for Larsson, but I honestly didn't hear an "Urlicht" that bad before. No desire whatsoever just to spit mean words, but she went with such a rather "Brünnhildian" voice; there is a much "purer tone" to be achieved in vocal Mahler. P.S.: It was a rare moment, that break between the first movements being respected (Mahler himself suggesting 5 minutes). Was it really Dudamel coming back on stage the public applauded once more?

Viktor, it was applause for the arrival on stage of the soloists. I take your point about the Landler. This obviously carries far less weight than the first movement and therefore becomes much harder to take to such an extreme tempo, convincingly! For me, I found it refreshing but not as engaging as it might have been taken with a tad more urgency.

Well I have listened to Mahler's 2nd a lot. It is one of my three favourite pieces. I found the orchestra superb. Did you see how intently they were looking at the conductor?? If only others would. I was spellbound. SO professional. So impressive. For me, this was the best interpretation I have heard. Too many critics of the tempi - it varied, it let the elements be heard. I LOVED IT.

I agree with the review - the second movement was much too slow, very little bounce or joy - but the fourth was very moving, and the soloist was excellent. Thought that the fifth soared towards the end and the choir were amazing.

Thanks for the correction, Barry. A slip duly amended.

Well said David Hutchings. It's just a shame that Mahler tends to bring out the worst traits of musical snobbery and elitism in his followers, as evinced by Geoff Brown's mean-spririted review.

Those who think Geoff Brown's review unfair should read Jim Pritchard's review :, which exposes the weakness in Dudamel's understanding of 'core' classical music such as Mahler 2.. I knew that after hearing Dudamel's interpretation of Shostakovich 10 in the 2007 Proms that I would never want to hear him in standard symphonic repertoire. Practically all his recordings of such music have been sold off at 'remaindered' prices! I believe strongly that he needs mentoring in what European classical music is about. Latin-American music he understands and brings off thrillingly as we saw with the second half of that Prom 4 years ago.

I have spent the last few decades admiring the Klemperer recording - a wonderfully slow conductor - and enjoyed the Dudamel tremendously when it was televised on Saturday evening - the tempi were very similar to Klemperer's throughout I think. (I queued from 3.30 on Friday afternoon with the promise of about the 280th place in the gallery, and was turned away empty-handed when about 30 people from the door. Why were so many turned away?)

I've been comparing timings on a few of my cds - Klemperer 79', Sinopoli 85', Mehta 81', Stokowski 80' - so much for Klemperer being slow! Stokowski conducted the 2nd at the proms in the 1960s with Janet Baker the alto soloist and it was received with the same rapturous excitement as Dudamel (I was there) - so some things never change. As to points on tempi, dynamics, etc.etc. - it's called interpretation. How boring if all performances were the same; and a great work can take any number of interpretations which is what keeps the music alive. When I started concertgoing in the 1950s Mahler performances were extremely rare. Present day whingers should count themselves lucky they have so many Mahler performances to attend.

Brian, I do wonder if we should be worshipping at the shrine of anyone who happens to write on the net. Sites such as this one do pride themselves on qualified writers - and most of us in the classical field will be familiar with Geoff Brown's writings - but it makes my heart sink to see the Lowest Common Denominator kick in elsewhere. And it's a breathtaking notion to tell this great animateur he should stick to Latin American music - rather like saying Celibidache should have limited himself to Enescu, or Abbado - whose genuine admiration for Dudamel is to be taken rather more seriously than the source you cite - to Italian opera. In short, what an extraordinary blanket attack on Dudamel. Some thing's he's conducted have worked, some haven't, all are well prepared. I don't 'get' his tempo transitions in Mahler - have yet to catch up on this performance - but I love his recording of Tchaikovsky 5, and his Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique at the Proms was revelatory. I doubt if someone who has spent so long with the Gothenburg SO, one of Europe's most sophisticated bands, really doesn't know what he's talking about in 'western music', whatever the label means. That said, I didn't like his Mahler 9 with the Los Angelenes at all. But I shan't be tarring him with the one-size-fits-all brush."

Sad to see so much nitpicking and snobbery from so-called 'music lovers.' Dudamel and his orchestra were amazing.

I hate this idea of comparing timings on recorded music. As one of my tutors always said to me, "music is about what happens BETWEEN the beats"; and when you're talking about recordings and track lengths even more so! Ok, the length of performance may have been similar to Stokowski, Klemperer or Joe Bloggs, but all this tells us about the interpretation is the most arbitrary of information. What about the interpretation? I believe the biggest issue with Dudamel's Mahler - and yes, I do take issue with his Mahler interpretations despite having enjoyed last week's concert so much - is this tendency to make so much of every climax. I've been defending his Mahler 2 because I believe he made it work in the awkward acoustic of the RAH, with the raw power the SBSO bring to all of their performances. But listen to his recording with the same orchestra of Mahler 5 - the piece with which he rose to fame. The structure is flawed and poorly balanced, particularly the finale. His Mahler 1, available on YouTube in his inaugural concert with the LA Philharmonic is also showmanship; the first movement never really gets going until the end and for me, Dudamel misses the point of the gradual accelerando so that the forest Mahler depicts suddenly springs into life all at once, instead of the gradual process Mahler intended. I don't think Dudamel is a great Mahler interpreter - YET. Perhaps this will change. However, his performance of Mahler 2, despite still having that 'showy' tenancy to take small details to extremes, was more cleverly balanced, and important tempo relations were present.

David Hutchings has misunderstood the point of my piece on timings. Several correspondents have been complaining that Dudamel was too slow. Irrespective of what you, or I, think of his performance I was pointing out that different interpretations will bring out different timings - the timings having no relation to the musical interpretation. Therefore there is no ONE correct interpretation. All are valid - take it or leave it.

Waldteufal- My apologies if I misread yours. When I wrote my last comment I had in mind those many critics who will proclaim about the similarities of two interpretations simply because the timings are the same or similar. Sometimes you gotta wonder if they have noticed any of the other nuances in the recording.

Poor review

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