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April 7, 2009

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):


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:44 PM | | Comments (2)


Count this as one person who NEVER gets tired of these kids' enthusiasm!

I have been waiting years to see this orchestra, ever since "60 Minutes" first aired a piece about Dudamel and El Sistema. I am a lover of classical music, as is my 18-year-old daughter, who plays the violin. But never have I been so thrilled and moved by an orchestra, not even the brilliant Berlin Philharmonic.

If more concerts were like this, more kids would love classical music. We make concerts so serious and proper that many people feel so constrained by the atmosphere that they reject it altogether. Instead, we need to remember that classical music is nothing if it doesn't move us. And sitting in dressed-up outfits afraid to breathe is not what kids want. They want to experience drama and joy, which is exactly what Dudamel and his group offers. A quote from Beethoven goes something like this: "Playing the wrong not if forgivable, but playing without passion is never forgivable." Since seeing this amazing orchestra, I have thought about this quote numerous times. Our major orchestras around the world would do well think about this quote as well if they want to draw in our youth. Otherwise, our classical traditions will die.

Hear, hear. Thanks for sharing your passion.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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