fri 14/06/2024

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, RFH

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel, RFH

Stravinsky ballet scores impressively articulated but with no whiff of greasepaint

Gustavo Dudamel and some of his fellow Venezuelans last nightAll images by Nohely Oliveros

So much black and red ink has been spilled about the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring that it’s easy to underestimate how radical the orchestration, at least, of its predecessor Petrushka must have sounded. It still usually comes up as fresh as poster paint.

The chance to hear both scores in a single concert is rare indeed, but one thing we certainly didn’t get from Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela at the start of their latest Southbank mini-residency was the shock of the new.

Now a mostly middle-aged band, the Simón Bolívars have for the past few years dropped the “Youth” from their title; but the one respect in which they compare to, say, our own National Youth Orchestra is in sheer size. Multiple desks of violins move as one, sighing, screaming and shuddering; the 11 double basses (pictured below) provide a massive, rhythmically taut underpinning and the brass sound is bright - the Latin American effect. But while that may work for the collective dance-ceremonies of The Rite, it isn’t so helpful for Petrushka (and why go for the slightly reduced 1947 revision rather than the sumptuous 1911 original?).

Simón Bolívar double bassesThere were sawdust and tinsel here, but, fatally, not the beating hearts beneath the wooden exteriors of the three fairground puppets. Surely Dudamel must have told the orchestra exactly what’s happening in such choreographic detail in the Benois/Stravinsky scenario; but I didn’t hear the squeezing of accordions big and small, the mania behind the well-executed piano solos of poor, tormented Petrushka or the sheer brazenness of the Ballerina blowing her trumpet at the Moor.

Orchestral solos were all well-executed, especially the showman’s flute invocation, but lacking the last degree of graphic intensity. Continuity, as always with Dudamel, proved impressive, apart from one missed contrabassoon fart into the silence as the Shrovetide fair crowd prepares for the puppet show; that one rhythmic prophecy of The Rite in the terrifying masqueraders' eruption was incisive, and Petrushka truly came to life, paradoxically, in the pathos of his death scene.

The question-mark piano pizzicato from lower strings right at the end – a downer which Diaghilev wanted replaced by something more crowd-pleasing – reminded us that the next ballet would end fortissimo with the expiration of the nearest The Rite gets to an individual, the Chosen One for the spring sacrifice. This "Danse Sacrale" was exhilaratingly fast and clear, probably not quite right for the ballet proper – a car chase ending in a crash rather than a heavy dance of death. Certainly the individuality of Dudamel’s reading took off in the last three rituals, the "Evocation of the Ancestors" especially impressive in its broad, swaying climax.

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of VenezuelaSo why did so much before it lack genuine excitement? Again, put it down to a lack of the graphic element, an absence of undertow in the "Spring Rounds", stodgy tempi in a Part Two Introduction which, despite the fascination of the muted trumpets, didn’t hold this listener’s attention. Once more the verdict must be: impressive in articulation and accenting rather than thrilling as dance-drama; the wild standing ovation didn’t seem quite justified by this or the Firebird finale (too smooth). All the stops were certainly pulled out in the string unisons of the second encore. Pedro Elías Gutíerrez's rough and ready arrangement of Aires de Venezuela did give us a taste of the authentic, raw excitement of which this team is still capable. Dudamel, though, seems a cooler customer these days.

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