Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, August 17, 2007

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela - Usher Hall, 17 August 2007


(Dribbly noises....)

This is turning into quite a week. Tonight's orchestral concert was the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and I scarcely know where to start.

OK. First off, they were a huge orchestra. I think the names listed in the programme include various substiututes, but insofar as I was able to count they had at least twelve desks (i.e. 24 players) of both first and second violins. An orchestra like the LSO normally uses something like eight, so the string section is about 50% bigger than the LSO's. OK. They also played incredibly well together. I mean, incredibly well together. A problem with large string sections is that their unanimity starts to get a bit statistical: not these guys. Their conductor (the equally youthful Gustavo Dudamel) conducted the entire evening from memory (not something you see that often these days except for middle-of-the-road repertoire). Their programme? Well, the first half was Shostakovich's tenth symphony, a pretty demanding piece which they dispatched like Brian Lara facing a rookie bowler. It wasn't just the string ensemble (though especially in the second movement - which they took faster than I think I've ever heard - that was a major feature) but every section was really switched-on and the piece just rocked. The second half had a Latin American theme, beginning with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and continuing with pieces by theMexican composers Moncayo (Huapango) and Marquez (Danzon No. 2) before ending with Ginastera's suite from Estancia. Well. The Bernstein I know very well as a player, but it was nice to sit back and just watch for once. It's an extraordinary piece, fitting together like a Japanese camera or Swiss watch but needing real emotional commitment to work. It got both the commitment and the precision: they played it as well as I've ever heard it done(including Bernstein's recording). The advantages of the huge size of string section became clear: the 2nd violins get the tune in "Somewhere", and last time I played it (and I guess the other times) it was really hard to strike a balance between making a big enough sound and playing sufficiently beautifully. Professionals simply make more sound than I do: this lot didn't need to worry for a different reason, as with their cast of thousands all they had to do was play beautufully and the volume was taken care of.

The Moncayo and Marquez were new to me and I thought they were terrific: vibrant music, cleverly put together and brilliantly played. I shall seek these composers out. Ginastera I knew from organ pieces (and of course Emerson Lake and Palmer), but tonight's piece didn't do much for me. To judge from the music, the ballet is about farm labourers with a penchant for the scherzo of Shostakovich 10 (I wondered if programming the pieces together was deliberate, the borrowings are so obvious) and cattlemen who prefer Games of the Rival Towns from The Rite Of Spring. (Again, embarrassingly obvious.) Ginastera is most effective when he isn't trying to be anyone but Ginastera, and the other movements work much better, including the finale (a tad overlong but very hummable).

OK, so we'd had a pretty long and uniformly demanding programme. (I understand the orchestra were up at 6.00 this morning as well, having only arrived a few hours earlier owing to flight delays.) Now came the encores: well, first came the tremendous applause. All the house lights went out, and when they came up the orchestra had swapped their black suit jackets for ones with the Venezuelan flag on them. I don't knew what the first encore was, but it had a fairly virtuoso part for maracas (the guy was playing them in a very precise way, like spoons, which I hadn't seen before). Next encore weas a re-run of the Dance at The Gym from the Bernstein. This time, they added a few extra bits of percussion and a lot of swaying body language. They didn't just shout "Mambo!", the horn players waved their instruments round their heads while the violinists twirled theirs about their axes. There's a bit near the end where most of what 's going on is in the brass, and the strings all got up and started dancing at that point. Finally the reprised the finale of the Ginastera, slightly cut and with even more motion: ever seen a whole orchestra doing Mexican waves while playing? It may sound gimmicky in print, but at the end of a long evening it was just youthful exuberance. And they still played brilliantly, even when all the front desk string players were formed into a conga line round the conductor.

Oh, and I think they're the first orchestra I've seen who took the trouble to turn round and give a bow to the cheap-seat punters in the Organ Gallery, behind the orchestra. Now that's classy.

They are doing pretty much the same programme in the BBC Proms on Sunday. Plus their brass ensemble is now filling in for part of tomorrow's late-night Prom after Maxim Vengerov's cancellation. (and MV is one of the few people I would rather have seen than the Venezuelans - a hero of mine and I've never caught him live).

So: watch/listen to the Proms on Sunday night. My guess is you're in for a treat.

Update: the brass ensemble were a treat in Saturday's late-night Prom.

Further update: the Prom was just as good as the Edinburgh gig, insofar as one can judge from television.


At 21 August, 2007 14:03, Anonymous Pete said...

I didn't just watch/listen to the Prom on Sunday - I was there. It was everything the Edinburgh concert sounds to have been with one vital extra, it was a Proms audience. From the chanted welcome in Spanish from the arena onwards a remarkable synergy built up between the orchestra and the audience. By the time of the encores there were no longer two separate entities, orchestra and audience, just one large group engaged in a joyous celebration of life.

My only regret is that I was too far from the stage to grab one of those jackets when they threw them into the audience at the end (even though some of the players had a remarkably good arm). When I espied someone wearing one of them on my way home I seriously considered turning to mugging.

At 21 August, 2007 21:28, Blogger Rob said...

Damn. They didn't throw their jackets away in Edinburgh (presumably because they needed them for the Prom). Mind you, I was in the balcony so it wouldn't have helped me much if they had.

And while I take your point about Proms audiences, Edinburgh ones, especially at festival time, can get pretty enthused, and did on Friday.

At 24 December, 2007 23:25, Blogger pockets said...

hoe can i hear this proms concert again from simon bolivar ven some one please heip me x shalom

At 02 January, 2008 17:03, Blogger Rob said...

If you have access to UK digital channels, it's repeated on Sunday 6 January 1930-2200 GMT on BBC4, repeated 7 January 0130-0400 GMT.


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