Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Back for more

November 03, 2007

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: , ,


Yes, Brian. I'm sure Dudamel did take your incisive criticism of Thursday's concert, and turn the volume down Friday. I was only present Thursday, and despite misgivings over all the hype surrounding the performance felt the Mahler was superlative. No, it was not the performence Abbado might give with Berlin but that's not reading of this music I would expect from a young orchestra with a conductor who does have lots of experience but is still in his twenties. Or the reading I would want.

But the sound was amazing, from the clarity of the string lines to excellent contributions from wind players, in particular the horn and bassoon principals. And LOUDde, have you heard the SFS play this thing in Davies? Or maybe old Solti with the CSO? List to those chorales on the recordings-- you cannot even hear the string architecture underpining that shit for Bud and his damn band, fine as they were, blasting the roof off.

There was none of that here.

The Bernstein was loud, yes. Good, I thought.

Yeah, and I was one who was caught up by the "youthful enthusiasm" of the group. In fact, I felt a powerful love for and understanding of this music from this orchestra that moved me to tears. You know, we're in LA so my cynicism should have tempered (as "experience" and "knowledge" will) the whole experience. You, from the shifty rhetoric employed in the second paragraph of your last piece, seem to have covered every possible angle. They are "loud," and "inexperienced," while at the same time they offered a "better performance than most professional orchestras." Although, just maybe we are seduced by all that "youthful enthusiasm."

And then, you remove this to another level. Here, with I assume your broad knowledge of Venezuela and it's history, you remind Dudamel (should he still be listening) that he may serve as Furtwangler to Chavez's Hitler-- though again you are careful to hedge yourself rhetorically-- "this is not 1938," blah blah.

It's possible, just possible, that patriotism here is an endorsement of a sense of belonging to a country as opposed to some sort of fascist like nationalism as you imply. Michael Tilson Thomas plays the US anthem often yet I don't exactly hear him, or David Robertson or Tony Spano, articulating publicly or vis a vis their subscribers or say the NEH some position on Guantanamo or renditions or wire-tapping or the war in Iraq. MTT has certainly reviewed American music in depth; and showing some pride in Venezuela while in the US-- even special outfits-- maybe that's to say hey, Venezuela's great.

And from that first concert, I'd have to agree. Of course, maybe I along with John Williams, could be damned by history for saying so...
I'm curious, though, what your advice to the next American orchestra to head to Europe might be...

I'm s_unyi@yahoo.com. I don't have a google account or webpage.
My advice to a US orchestra on tour in Europe or elsewhere, as the LA Phil are at this very moment, would be this - I wouldn't program the Star-Spangled Banner on any of the shows, or include it in the encores. I would also not recommend everyone wearing US flag jackets. These things might seem uncouth abroad right now given the general state of affairs at home and in the world.
You know, we're in LA so my cynicism should have tempered (as "experience" and "knowledge" will) the whole experience

It has nothing to do with living in Los Angeles or cynicism, your silly "scare quotes" around experience and knowledge notwithstanding. It has to do with listening to an orchestra with critical ears, with the accumulated years of listening to far better orchestras and conductors play this music (I'm thinking of the Mahler that I heard last Thursday) and saying "Nice, but rather poorly played, the conducting was one-dimensional and uninteresting".
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?



Opera Reviews '10-'11

Opera Reviews '09-'10

Opera Reviews '06-'09

L.A. Phil Reviews '09/'10

L.A. Phil Reviews '08/'09

L.A. Theater Reviews


Follow Along


Los Angeles

Follow me on Twitter