The Simón Bolívar is the triumph of José Antonio Abreu, the originator about 40 years ago of the wonderful net of children´s and youth orchestras of all Venezuela, certainly the most important and successful social/musical experiment in the world. In fact, no longer an experiment but a blazing success that is here to stay. And this orchestra is the top of the pyramid, the sublimated ultra-selection of all the best teenagers and young adults that come from lower rungs of the same organisation. We met it at the Colón about eight years ago, with the very young Gustavo Dudamel showing a fresh young talent, and I was mightily impressed. Now Dudamel is the most feted young lion of conducting in the world, with a post at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Simón Bolívar remains a prodigy. Both Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado have pronounced Venezuela as the place where symphonic renovation is occurring, and they are right. For the combination is unbeatable: tremendous Latin adrenaline in perfect blend with German ultra-discipline.
They offered two different programmes and I had to chose the first, for the second collided with an offering by Festivales Musicales, Café Zimmermann, which I didn´t want to miss. So, I resigned myself to lose the experience of Ravel´s "Daphnis et Chloë" (Suite Nº 2) and of Stravinsky´s Suite from "The Firebird", plus pieces by the Mexican Carlos Chávez and by a Venezuelan composer. I was told that it was a brilliant occasion, though at the end they did a similar show as eight years ago, playing and dancing a Bernstein Mambo (from "West Side Story") among other things, the same show they do all over the world and by now seems more a pose and an artifice than a sincere manifestation of exuberant "Venezuelanismo". The day before, though, everything was austere, boys and girls in black, and at the end no encores.
The Mahler Seventh is certainly one of his most complex and uneven. It starts with an almost chaotic first movement that alternates wildly betwen a funeral march and wild outbursts. There follow three fascinating movements: two "Night Musics" of unending imagination and an eerie, scurrilous Scherzo; the feats of orchestration are a continuous source of wonder. But…the last movement is a grotesque Rondo where the main theme is repeated seven times, and it sounds like a Bierfest turned into a nightmare, a Bavarian hangover in a huge scale.
Dudamel showed his undoubted maturity in this risky score: a marvelous memory (he conducted without a score); precise, energetic movements that conveyed visually the music without exaggeration; a strong sense of pulse and continuity; the ability to make sense out of the weaker passages; a total command and concentration. But he had an almost miraculous orchestra, where one didn´t know what to admire the most: e.g., the perfect intonation and articulation of the massed violins, or the excellent solos in such instruments as the tenor horn. One could cavil at the extreme brightness of the trumpets but not at their exactitude. B.A. has heard one great performance of this symphony years ago: Chicago/Barenboim; now it can add another. Just one observation: the orchestra is unjustifiably enormous; no other organism in the world lists so many players; they don´t all play in the same concert, of course.
I first met the Rotterdam Philharmonic in some pioneering vinyl records of the fifties with Mahler symphonies conducted by Eduard Flipse, their principal conductor at the time; they were quite good. Later the orchestra had such chiefs as Jean Fournet (so well-known here), Edo De Waart, Valery Gergiev, and now the much promoted young Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But on this first tour, they came with a distinguished guest conductor who made his BA debut after a long and great career: Leonard Slatkin. I heard him (and wrote about it) in October 2009 with the Vienna Symphony. He chose a programme of Viennese classics in the First Part (Mozart´s Overture to "Le Nozze di Figaro" and Schubert´s Symphony Nº 8, "Unfinished"), and the highly complex Rachmaninov Second to finish. The encore: Brahms´ Hungarian Dance Nº 1.
The quality was uniformly high in these quite disparate styles. All sections of the orchestra are highly professional and hear each other with chamberlike intensity; intonation is admirable, the string sections play like one and with fine concentrated energy; when soloists have their chance, they take it with personality and subtlety (the clarinet in Rachmaninov!). Textures remain comprehensible even when they are very dense, thanks to Slatkin´s masterful technique, and the music always coheres for this conductor with a perfect sense of form. The whole concert was a pleasure and shows the Rotterdam to be close to the Concertgebouw, just a notch below; quite a praise considering that the Amsterdam orchestra was voted last year the best of the world.
For Buenos Aires Herald