Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra deliver incendiary performance at Kennedy Center
There is only one sensible reaction to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela -- unconditional surrender.
You can waste time discussing some little technical shortcoming, or questioning some interpretive decision by the ensemble's decade-long music director, Gustavo Dudamel, but that would be missing the point. This orchestra is the world's most dynamic advertisement for the sheer joy of music-making. That joy electrified the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Monday night, when the Washington Performing Arts Society presented Dudamel and the ensemble in a program of virtuosic works.
I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a concert, and I'm not just talking about the wild and crazy encore portion. Each sonic wave was produced with such enthusiasm and commitment that you couldn't help but smile.
The sunrise portion from the Suite No. 2 of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe was positively blinding, the concluding dance terrifically powerful. Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, an imaginative piece by Evencio Castellanos, whirled by with splashes of vivid color. And Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- well, let's just say that the earth moved from the sheer force of the orchestra's fortissimos.
I confess that I wondered if these players -- the cream of the crop from the much-heralded educational project known as El sistema that has more than 250,000 Venezuelan youths involved in musical activity -- ever spend much quality time with the elegant dimensions of music by, say, Mozart or Haydn. But when you've got nearly 200 musicians raring to go onstage ...
why not let them loose on the great showpieces of the repertoire?
And Dudamel, who takes the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic next season, is just the man to lead the charge. He thrives on this stuff. He had the Rite of Spring, in particular, unfolding with extraordinary tension, each jagged rhythmic turn and each percussive jolt given an extra charge -- and articulated by the ensemble with startling precision.
The players were certainly capable of restraint as well as power. Other than some overly aggressive woodwinds for the gentle, undulating start of the Ravel suite, subtle passages in each of the three big pieces on the bill generated a good deal of sensitivity. But this was never going to be a night of delicate nuance. This orchestra is a force of young nature, and that's what it seemed most anxious to reaffirm here.
Just the way the string players moved said a lot -- they put their whole bodies into the music, something you so rarely see among the members of the typical American adult orchestra. All the way to the back stands, these young people were visibly connected to the notes and to Dudamel's intentions. I can't emphasize enough how refreshing and invigorating that sight was. If professional orchestras could muster one-tenth the energy and passion that these kids demonstrated Monday, there would be standing-room-only concerts all season long.
The Bolivar bunch likes to go totally wild when they get the chance -- these are kids, after all --and that's what encore time is all about in this orchestra. The musicians, and their conductor, donned Venezuelan flag-emblazoned jackets and added frenzied choreography to blazing accounts of the Malambo from Ginastera's Estancia and the Mambo from Bernstein's West Side Story.
I suppose this sort of thing -- violinists jumping up to spin around, while their colleagues twirl cellos, wave horns or toss drumsticks in the air -- could get old after seeing it too many times, but I can't imagine it would lose its visceral, crowd-pleasing impact.
If you missed this concert, here's a taste of the action during a performance of that kinetic Estancia dance (filmed in Lucerne):
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO