Not a figure of speech, not a hyperbole, just fact. In the middle of
the first movement of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 in Davies Hall
tonight, as the strings erupted in an enormous unison theme, and then
distorted it - fortissimo - in a horrifying statement of power turning
into threat, the response in the listener was physical, visceral. In
that moment, as the huge combination of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra's
string sections moved and played together as one, all the advance hype
(including my own) became both justified and quite immaterial.
The Venezuelan youngsters (18 to 23), under the baton of the remarkable
Gustavo Dudamel, are the real thing, a youth orchestra second to none,
including my favorite, the ever-astonishing Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.
News travels fast because enthusiasm in the San Francisco Civic Center
was palpable, with a long line of (to be disappointed) ticket-seekers,
cheers erupting as each musician entered the stage (rather than the usual
perfunctory greeting for an orchestra at the beginning of a concert),
and the supposedly unknown Dudamel - he and the Simon Bolivar were making
their debut - received an ovation before a note was played.
The Shostakovich was very big - although "only" 140 of the orchestra's
180 musicians could be seated on the stage - and powerful, vibrant,
occasionally too loud, and played from the heart, even though the orchestra
has been on tour with it for months now. Dudamel, not using a score all
evening long, is a magical conductor, both leading and radiating the
music. He does not "show" himself to the audience (unlike conductors
deftly exhibiting their profiles), concentrating on the task at hand,
he moves with the music, but does not dance, takes no solo bows, standing
between the musicians as ovation after ovation rocks the hall.
I am certain it's an individual reaction, but after the Shostakovich,
the brilliantly showy second half of the concert was somewhat of a
letdown, due in part to the somewhat monotonous nature of "music from
Latin America" - the mild pop of Arturo Marquez's Danzon No 2, the merely
pleasant Pedro Gutierrez "Alma Llanera" - and the ersatz-Latino Symphonic
Dances from "West Side Story." To be sure, if the Simon Bolivar performed
only the second half, it would have been an exciting, memorable concert
(especially the vibrant Ginastera "Estancia" ballet suite), but the
greatness of the Shostakovich and its stunningly illustrious execution
was a tough - no, an impossible - act to follow.
The 1953 symphony, written immediately after Stalin's death, has
a Mahlerian (in size, weight and impact) first movement, and under
Dudamel's leadership, it was all of one piece, breathing, spitting fire,
and grieving without a moment's respite. The super-brief, explosive
Allegro (supposedly a portrait or caricature of Stalin) had the strings
once again semi-airborne and moving as one, in a kind of physical
music-making you seldom see... or hear.
The Allegretto was both playful and sinister, a true Shostakovich
piece of "fun" with danger and pain lurking underneath. The Andante
s unconvincing, perhaps mocking mirth, and the final "DSCH" signature
were perfection itself. In addition to the wondrous strings (led by the
remarkable concertmaster Alejandro Carreno), the strong, faultless brass,
and the tripled and quadrupled woodwind sections all gave a performance
to remember. Among principals, Alexis Angulo (flute), Frank Giraldo
(oboe), David Medina (clarinet) made a special impression, along with
pianist Vilma Sanchez.
The next time the Venezuelans come anywhere near (even to Los Angeles),
do what you have to do, and experience music that produces shivers and
joy. And start saving now for the trip to Milan for Dudamel's opera
debut with La Scala (he has already conducted the house orchestra...
in Mahler's Symphony No. 3!)
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