Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar / Dudamel - Royal Festival Hall, 14 April 2009
They'd won the game as soon as they stepped on stage, judging by the applause. It's an enormous band - twelve double basses, at least forty violins - but they all squeezed on somehow.
Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra was the opener, a clever choice that demonstrates clearly that the orchestra can handle more than just fiesta music, as well as providing plenty of individual chances to shine. The woodwinds were particularly impressive, their unerringly accurate intonation a rare delight south of the river, but the whole orchestra was immaculately-drilled. The size of the band provides a depth and richness of sound few conventional symphony orchestras can match, but it could also prove unwieldy. Not so in the expert hands of Gustavo Dudamel - even the quicksilver twists and turns of the last movement were crisp and fleet.
He drove Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony relentlessly. It was exciting, edge-of-seat stuff, but at the same time I would have appreciated more subtlety here and there - the first movement's woodwind slivers airier, like glints of light on water, the brass fanfares more stately and monumental. The potential is there, and these musicians have grasped the most important lesson of all, which is how to listen and how to play as part of a greater whole. All they need now is the age and experience to hone their talents to the final degree.
The standing ovation erupted on the last note, maybe even before, and the lights dipped for a quick onstage costume change. Off came the DJs, on went the famed Venezuela jackets, and they launched into their party-piece Ginastera and Bernstein, complete with dancing violinists, twirling horns, and recklessly juggled drum sticks. The audience went wild, and wilder still as jackets were daintily removed and flung out into eagerly awaiting hands.
This orchestra doesn't produce the most refined playing you'll ever hear, but that's so far from the point it's irrelevant. What it does - and what no other orchestra right now seems able to do - is simply to bring people together in the joy of music. Simple, but not easy, and nobody does it better.
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