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December 6, 2012

The refreshing power of Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony

If you ever need your batteries recharged, just get to a performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, led by its kinetic music director Gustavo Dudamel. You'll be hopping for days afterward.

Thanks to the Washington Performing Arts Society, these irrepressible forces have made two appearances in this region since 2009. The second, Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, proved as memorable as the first.

(Might as well mention, for the thousandth time, that Baltimore has a major void in its classical music life -- the absence of visiting orchestras. We could sure use a version of WPAS here.)

The Bolivar Symphony is the most famous product -- along with Dudamel -- of the much-praised, much-studied El sistema music education program that involves some 400,000 young people in Venezuela, the majority of them impoverished. (The Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids program in inner city schools has been greatly influenced by the principles of El sistema, founded by Jose Antonio Abreu.)

I've occasionally met people who are convinced this massive Venezuelan effort is ...

too good to be true, that it just can't be so darn successful all the time all over the country, that there must be failures somewhere. But when I hear the young musicians play, I find it easy to accept that this is everything it is cracked up to be, one of the greatest music education adventures anywhere, at any time.

I like the fact that the original title of the ensemble, Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, has been changed along the way. The level of musicianship is much too high to be pigeonholed by such a designation. Professional orchestras in this country could learn a lot from these players, who range in age from 18 to 28, starting with the physicality that is a part of a Bolivar Symphony concert.

Watching these guys in action is a kick in itself, especially when you are used to seeing the stiff playing style of American orchestras (especially in the back stands of string sections). Their bodies are totally connected to the arc of each melodic line or the pulse of a propulsive rhythm.

This is not just for effect, but it absolutely has an effect -- the music-making is so intensely committed and involving that only the smuggest of smug listeners could not help but be pulled into the energy field generated onstage.

(Every time I hear someone complaining about Baltimore Symphony concertmaster Jonathan Carney's expansive movements, I just wish they could see -- and hear -- these Venezuelans in action.)

Then there is the sound itself. It's not just a matter of volume, although that is obviously significant -- this orchestra is more than twice the size of our BSO. It's the quality of the tone, which Dudamel has helped to hone. The strings have a great deal of sheen, the woodwinds an impressive array of colors. The brass are capable of producing massive walls of well-controlled sonic power. The percussion section is fearless.

Dudamel, conducting from memory all night, led an action-packed, prismatic program that included Carlos Chavez's "Sinfonia India," Julian Orbon's "Tres Versiones Sinfonicas," Strauss' "An Alpine Symphony," and, for an encore, some Wagner.

The vivid Chavez work, with its piquant orchestration and harmonies (you can easily hear why Copland was such a Chavez fan), crackled mightily. I cannot understand why this piece is not performed more often by our own orchestras.

The Orbon score, with its lush sonorities and, in the finale, xylophone-propelled animation, inspired taut, expressive efforts from the ensemble.

With the over-sized, occasionally overwrought symphony by Strauss, his depiction of an ascent and descent in the Alps, the concert hit its, yes, peak. Dudamel held the sprawling score together, making each pictorial episode communicate clearly and absorbingly.

And because he could draw on an apparently bottomless reservoir of strength from his musicians, the conductor was able to avoid hitting an anticlimactic slide along the way. Each fortissimo seemed louder, deeper, more stirring than the last. Each gentle valley in this sonic journey likewise was masterfully shaded, so that delicate instrumentation emerged with telling clarity and nuance.

Even some Strauss fans find the "Alpine Symphony" a slog, but when you experience such a visceral account, the score's strengths easily outshine the weaker moments. This remains a sterling example of orchestration, and it was a keen pleasure to hear it fulfilled so viscerally by the Venezuelans.

This music also has a genuine emotional component, and it was likewise a keen pleasure to hear that side treated with such feeling by Dudamel. His conviction in the score registered at every turn.

After the hearty, sustained ovation that lasted through several bows, Dudamel finally agreed to an encore, though not the Bernstein "Mambo" that several audience members kept shouting for -- that former trademark of the orchestra would seem too much like kids' stuff now, certainly after a program like this.

Instead, the conductor led the players in something totally un-showy, something all about maturity -- the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." The rapturous performance signaled yet again what a tight bond Dudamel and the players share, and offered yet another demonstration of truly impassioned music-making.

It is awfully easy to believe in the future of classical music after an encounter with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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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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