Review of West Side Story by Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra
If you were to judge the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela solely from the exhilarating video clip that's been making the rounds on the Internet - the one of the young players and their music director, Gustavo Dudamel, kicking the stuffing out of Leonard Bernstein's "Mambo" at London's Royal Albert Hall in August - you might easily conclude that this is one of the most dynamic and daring ensembles around.
The 200 musicians of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela were so tightly jammed onto the stage of Carnegie Hall for their New York debut concerts in November that one wondered how the ten bass players had space to move their bows. But cramped or not, the entire orchestra played with tremendous verve and precision, responsive both to the hyperkinetic signals of their music director, 27-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, and to the lower-key direction of Simon Rattle, who conducted the final work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. This was vivid, pictorial musicmaking, from the brassy comedy and breakneck speeds of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, to the conversational passages of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, and the serene accompaniment of Emanuel Ax in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. At the conclusion of the first concert, the players changed into bright jackets in the colors of the Venezuelan flag and launched into a trio of Latin-American themed pieces, including Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story, in a style more typical of a marching band. Trumpets were raised to the sky, cellists twirled their instruments, and whole sections stood and danced while playing—all without missing a beat. The audience went wild. These young musicians, most of whom are in their 20s, are the tip of the iceberg f a remarkable music-education venture hat has been underway in Venezuela since 1975. La Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela (State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, or FESNOJIV), based in Caracas and known colloquially as “El Sistema,” is the creation of José Antonio Abreu, an economist and musician who believes in the transformative power of music. Today, it involves approximately 250,000 children and youth, who are being trained to play instruments and perform in orchestras all over Venezuela.
To conclude, what seemed a slightly odd programme on paper - they had also played it at the Edinburgh international festival, two nights earlier - turned out to be perfectly judged in performance. Starting with Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony allowed Dudamel to lay down his and his orchestra's musical credentials right from the start. The long first movement was traced in a single, continuous arc, with beautifully moulded solo playing from the woodwind, and the scherzo started at a speed that seemed scarcely sustainable, though Dudamel and the orchestra did so without any sign of stress. Perhaps the slow movement did not plumb all the emotional depths some older conductors lay bare in the Tenth, but any lack of profundity was more than compensated for by the tension and drama generated elsewhere by the huge orchestra - woodwinds and utterly secure brass in fives and sixes, and battalions of perfectly disciplined strings.