Monday, April 20, 2009

Venezuelan Sensation

From my blog at spearswms.com.

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Far be it from me to tread on the (extremely knowledgeable) toes of another Spear's blogger, Dr Vanessa Neumann, but I'd like to offer my two cents on one aspect of Venezuela: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and authors of the most thrilling performance I have ever seen.

When I booked my tickets for Saturday night's performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring at the Royal Festival Hall, I said that people would mortgage their houses on the day of the concert for a spare ticket.

All right, it was October 2007 so I didn't know people would find getting a mortgage impossible in eighteen months' time, but the principle was right. I've never seen touts at a classical concert before.

By any standard, it would be hard to call the Rite of Spring dull. Its punishing polyrhythms, its violinists who attack their instruments, disc(h)ordant bassoons and a frightening, surprising ending keep you in permanent tension. It is the musical equivalent of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, with its African masks and sharp angles.

But the SBYO turn these notes and staves into a visceral, thundering, unutterably thrilling event, accelerating through barlines like a Ferrari with the pedal down, leading the dance in new and shocking ways. The orchestra seemed to understand in their very beings the violent passions of the music, and it flowed out through their explosive style.

The critical consensus is that they're great with the fortes, not so hot with the pianos, but I didn't find this true, either in the other works on the programme (three early 20th century Latin American pieces) or in their encore of Elgar's Nimrod, which was a warm tribute to their hosts. It is the thunder, however, at which they excel.

The orchestra is the product of El Sistema, the national programme for putting an instrument in every child's hands. This has resulted in not low-level enthusiasm for music but dozens of orchestras, including one world-beater.

If we could inspire Britain's youth away from their computers and into rehearsal rooms, perhaps we would have such a grass-roots orchestra to be proud of.

I don't feel confident about that. What I do feel confident about is that the SBYO will continue to thrill us for years to come.

Here is their signature piece, the Mambo from West Side Story at the 2007 Proms:

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