Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Crushed by the Wheels of Industry

November 02, 2007

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
Photo: mine 2007
It was certainly a big evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall tonight. The occasion, of course, was the first of two programs from soon to be LA Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela so near and dear to his heart. Everyone was there from Mr. Gehry to Peter Sellars in his 60s love beads. The crowd was wound-up beyond belief producing huge prolonged standing ovations at any minute for the orchestra and their conductor. The Orchestra itself delivered a standing ovation for the orchestra’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, and a sitting one for Dudamel himself. Venezuelan flags were waved from the audience, multiple tongues were spoken, and a sold-out crowd with many children and young adults filled the hall. Free copies of Tocar Y Luchar, the documentary by Alberto Arvelo, were handed out to members of the audience to further the feel-good publicity around the orchestra and el sistema, the training program responsible for the SBYOV. There was only one small problem – the matter of Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances form West Wide Story.

I realize that I will probably be burned for heresy for saying this, but here goes – the performance, while certainly spirited was a bit much. Not unlike the sexual advances of an amorous teen, exuberance supplanted the knowledge that comes from experience. Not that the playing wasn’t often brimming with life. Dudamel produced an amazingly passionate performance. It's just that the whole thing was loud - very, very, and often unnecessarily loud for the room. The Bernstein alone employed a super-sized 200 plus member orchestra involving approximately half the young adult population of Venezuela. It was more the orchestral equivalent of the Round-Up amusement ride, the centripetal force of the noise plastered you against the wall till what at first seemed pleasurable quickly became mildly nauseating. The Bernstein was marked with some of the rhythmic brilliance widely reported from their London Proms performances, but the horns were deafening throughout and there was an absence of any delicacy. Perhaps all of their YouTube stardom of recent months have gone to their heads.

The Mahler fared a little better. Mahler is no stranger to bombast and the no-holds-barred approach fit well in many places with a real whiz-bang of an opening and a closing. But the performance was grating after awhile even by Mahler standards. To be fair, this group of young musicians is clearly very talented and given their age the fact they could pull off a program that sounded like this to begin with is truly amazing. Dudamel is quite magnetic and his guidance is clearly an inspiration. It’s very exciting to think about his potential with a more seasoned group of musicians and it bodes well for the future here in LA. There is another program tomorrow night.

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Hi, found your blog via, of all things, the Englishman Pliable's place, On An Overgrown Path.

Thank you for the review, I was starting to think I was crazy, I thought I was the only person who had reservations about the music last Thursday. I agree with your assessment of the performances and would add: based on the two concerts I've heard him conduct (this one and last years Kodaly/Rachmaninov/Bartok one with the LAP), Mr. Dudamel would seem to not bother with things like contrast, dynamic markings in the score(s) and the idea that relentlessly driving the music can be very wearying after a while. It's all very exciting and leads to push-button standing ovations, but it bruises my ears too. I shudder to think of him conducting Debussy.

And Mark Swed is an embarrassment, he's a PR flack that writes under a Los Angeles Times byline.
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