In full regalia
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Photo: mine 2007
I had not planned to comment on the second night of the performances from the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela at the Walt Disney Concert Hall under Gustavo Dudamel. After my report on the first night
, I figured I’d leave it at that, but it turned out to be such a strange and surreal mix of elements, that I’ve changed my mind. The evening started out with much more promise. Apparently Dudamel got the memo about the volume and overall things were toned down to a much more pleasing level. (To be fair, it appears that many instruments were held up in customs and the orchestra did not get adequate time to rehearse in the space.) The program started with a very spirited Beethoven’s 5th that was hard not to admire. It was one of those big sound productions popular a few decades ago with a beefed up orchestration to make everything sound fuller. I’m no expert in this area, but I’m pretty sure Beethoven didn’t originally call for 5 flutes and 4 oboes. Still the playing was strongly felt. The group got another standing ovation at intermission as love poured from an audience with more than a few expatriate Venezuelans.
The second half focused on Latin American composers – Moncayo’s Huapango
, Márquez’ Danzón No. 2
, and Ginastera’s Suite from Estancia
. The group and Dudamel were clearly having fun and the audience again responded in kind. Dudamel does in fact appear to be the real deal and the performances he elicited from this group of relative youngsters while not perfect was better than much of what you could expect from most professional orchestras these days particularly in terms of energy level. He is among close friends with the SBYOV and the ease of communication shows. It is easy to be swept away with the sheer youthful enthusiasm of the group.
However, it was at this point that things got a little weird. The show ended with a series of encores drenched in spirited patriotism for Venezuela. The house lights dimmed briefly as the musicians donned blazers with the red, yellow and blue of the Venezuelan flag. The crowd became ecstatic and then John Williams (of all people) appeared in his own Venezuela blazer to lead the massive group through the theme from Star Wars
. The SBYOV continued through at least two other encores including the Mambo segment from West Side Story
. At this point the group stood and swayed and periodically danced around in maneuvers that are standard fare for most high school marching bands as the excitement level grew. As a final encore, Dudamel cajoled his mentor and SBYOV founder José Antonio Abreu onto the stage where he led the orchestra through the Venezuelan national anthem. Some commentators, including Pliable
, have noted discomfort with this brand of patriotism from any group but especially concerning in this case given the current political realities in Venezuela. While this very talented group of young people are drawing attention around the world, this very day their peers are under assault
with tear gas and rubber bullets for defending democracy in the streets of Caracas. Of course, we Americans can appreciate what it is like to feel pride in one’s homeland even when that place has political leaders who make very poor decisions and are reviled both at home and abroad. Still, I would have to agree that all this flag waving pushes some boundaries. Certainly this is not 1938 and they aren't playing Deutschland über alles
, but I can also certainly imagine Mr. Williams growing to regret some of those photos with his on-stage wardrobe a few years down the line.
Still, for now, everyone seems to be able to look the other way and have a good time, an art mastered by Americans. If anyone had any doubt of that, the appearance of Los Angeles’ own progressively more-troubled Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, during the second half should have made that clear. Dudamel and these young players give off many good vibrations and those in need of them are apparently not far from hand. Dudamel has had some big name music mentors including Barenboim, Rattle, and Claudio Abbado, and, if he is wise, he might have leaned in for some words of wisdom from the mayor as well. If these performances indicate anything for Dudamel’s future in LA it may be this – he may be much less likely to face musical difficulties than he is to face political ones. Fair or not, the more of a despot Hugo Chavez becomes and the more his country and the US are at odds, the more pressure he may feel here to take a stand for what he believes in. Dudamel has carefully avoided
taking positions on the controversies in his home country in the press while maintaining a necessary amount of contact with the Chavez regime that continues to provide funding for the SBYOV. Dudamel’s biggest challenge here in LA may be remaining publicly neutral in regards to events in his own country. These are tensions felt by many in the expatriate Venezuelan community here, and it may not just be the press that proves unforgiving.
Labels: Dudamel, LA Philharmonic 07/08, SBYOV