Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Monday December 3, 2012
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra bring vigor and finesse to Orchestra Hall
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in San Francisco last week. | LEO RAMIREZ~Getty Images
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
with Gustavo Dudamel, musical director
BY ANDREW PATNER
When Gustavo Dudamel last brought his feisty Caracas-based ensemble to Chicago in spring 2009 it was a national youth orchestra highlighting a Chicago "youth and music" festival and training program.
When he returned here Sunday afternoon, a grand old man of 31 and in his fourth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his players had been rechristened the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Graduates of the famed "El Sistema" music education complex founded by Dudamel's own teacher, José Antonio Abreu, these 160 or so young people retain the fire and excitement of their student days but have added depth and refinement as a part of their professional development just as Dudamel has become increasingly economical and controlled as a podium conductor.
The West and East Coast anchors of this tour by the Bolívars each have two full programs of lesser-heard music from Latin America. The one-afternoon Chicago stand gave us the frequently played 1935 Sinfonía india by Mexico's Carlos Chávez, a close Aaron Copland associate, a genuine rarity from 1953 by Cuba's Julián Orbón, Tres versiones sinfónicas (Thee Symphonic Versions), and the mammoth An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64 (1911-15) of the very non-Latin Bavarian Richard Strauss.
Given the large, enthusiastic, and heavily Latin audience Sunday at Orchestra Hall, I think the presenting Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association could have sold an all-Latin concert (from all reports, the suite from the 1939 film score La noche de los Mayas ["Night of the Mayans"] by the Chicago-connected Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas was given a hair-raising performance in Berkeley, California). The Strauss, paced at almost an hour by Dudamel, did provide additional opportunities to see and hear how far these already excellent players and their musical director have come over the past 13 years. (Dudamel took over musical leadership of the group at 18.) Answer? Very.
"El Sistema" has a social mission, of course. Its demonstration that serious music education opportunities can take kids -- especially young men and boys -- off of the streets, out of the barrios, and on to the concert stage has inspired similar efforts around the world including in the U.S. and Chicago. The System's top orchestras still have an enormous lack of Afro-Venezuelans (in a country more than 15 percent black) while the social mission pushes a heavy imbalance of males, although I know of no other professional orchestra with four women in its string bass section.
Under Dudamel, Abreu and rising even-younger conductors Christian Vásquez and Diego Matheuz, the players have reached an astonishing level, with excellent and rich string ensembling and wind and brass choirs and soloists many a fully adult orchestra could envy. Dudamel himself, after several years in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the responsibilities of leadership in Los Angeles also shows additional discipline. Of his three international mentors, the mop-topped (now with a patch of gray?) conductor seems to carry the most from former CSO principal guest conductor Claudio Abbado, have discarded the empty dazzle of Simon Rattle and pared down some of Daniel Barenboim's emotionalism while retaining the former CSO music director's analytical skills. The Strauss was ever of a piece, its sprawl wholly tamed.
The Orbón, too, had its moments of fascination as the composer took three fragments from European Renaissance and medieval music and Congolese folk material and worked various changes of Latin rhythms and sounds on them. The second section, a slow movement dubbed "Organum-Conductus, " had an eerie sense of freezing time.
After calls and cheers for wilder encores, Dudamel told the audience that after the Strauss, "What can we do? It's like having a meal of meat and then asking for . . . more meat!" His solution: a calming, even gentle Liebestod of Richard Wagner. And then came, not Bernstein's West Side Story "Mambo!" -- growing up means knowing when to say "Enough!" -- but "Alma Llanera," Venezuela's lilting, unofficial second national anthem. With some waving flags, arm-swaying, and singing along from the audience, the legitimate pride in these artists was palpable.