The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra grew from Venezuela’s academic program, El Sistema, which involves children with active musicianship starting with the earliest years at school. Together with Gustavo Dudamel the orchestra has become not only goodwill ambassadors but the most persuasive argument in favor of robust music education.
Four years ago, I heard Dudamel lead the New York Philharmonic in a bland, undercooked reading of Carlos Chávez’s Sinfónia india. The present performance was the polar opposite – spirited with abundant rhythmic drive, pungent colors, and lyrical rendering of themes drawn from songs of native Mexican peoples (who used to carry the misnomer “Indians”).
Although Cuban composer Julián Orbón studied with Aaron Copland, his Tres versiones sinfónicas, composed in 1953, sounded more like the music of Howard Hanson, albeit far more thickly orchestrated, with often dauntingly dense textures. Dudamel, much to his credit, reined in the opacity, gave bloom to the melodies, and fleshed out the rhapsodic structure of each movement. The rock-solid intonation of the first violins in the high passages of the first movement ‘Pavana’ would be the envy of many orchestras.
Following intermission was audacious Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’s La noche de los Mayas – a well-timed bit of programming given the speculation that the “Mayan apocalypse” caused by the end of their finite calendar is only days away. The work is based on music composed for a 1939 film of the same name, edited into a suite in 1960 by José Yves Limantour, and requires an enormous percussion section including both classical and indigenous instruments along with conch shells blown like trumpets, filling Carnegie Hall with long, ominous drones.
The first movement, ‘Noche de los Mayas’, opens and closes with momentous tam-tam shots and a theme incorporating a strophic, almost ritually repeated melody, which Dudamel presented with the right balance of the primal and the cinematic. The second movement, ‘Noche de los jaranas’, has plenty of swift, playful melodic material and rhythmic syncopation, more than a passing-nod to jazz, Stravinsky, and dance-band music. The woodwinds were particularly impressive here, and the strings brought poignant, earthy beauty to the big melodies of the third movement, ‘Noche de Yucután’, with a satisfying balance of brightness and warmth. Revueltas unleashes massed percussion in the finale, ‘Noche de encantamiento’, a dramatically-gauged, thrilling series of salvos and intricate cross-rhythms. Dudamel succeeded where two other performances I have heard completely failed – reining in the big climaxes, especially in the outer movements, to deliver a thrilling ending when the first movement’s big theme returns.
Trademark encores typically followed. Arturo Márquez’s Conga del Fuego is pure ‘pops’ fluff with impressive solo playing from the principal trumpet. Pedro Gutierrez’s joropo, Alma Llanera – the unofficial second national anthem of Venezuela – prompted Dudamel’s fellow countrymen in the audience to stand, wave flags, and (on Dudamel’s clear cues) sing along. The orchestra’s high-voltage take on ‘Mambo’ from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story brought down the house.