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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Concert Review: A Change of Seasoning

Spicy South American music with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gustavo Dudamel at the helm of the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 Carnegie Hall.
The career of Gustavo Dudamel has been inextricably entwined with the rise of Venezuela as a source of classical music performers, thanks to that country's El Sistema program that promotes music education to youth through the formation and training of orchestras. The Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is the flagship of that program. On Friday night, they played the second of three concerts at Carnegie Hall, and the first program following the season opening gala the night before.

This concert balanced between conventional European repertory and the music of the Orchestra's own nation. It opened with selections from two Venezuelan composers: Juan Carlos Núñez and former SBSOV member Paul Desenne. Heitor Villa-Lobos, the national composer of the great nation of Brazil. Mr. Núñez' works were commissioned by the orchestra, and are settings of two Tonadas from the pen of Simón Díaz, a popular composer known to Venezuelans by the sobriquet "Tio (uncle) Simón."

The tonada is a form that has strong roots in the culture of Venezuelan country life, heard accompanying the ordinary tasks of agriculture and hunting. Here, Mr. Dudamel and his players emphasized the dark colors of Mr. Núñez' orchestral palette, creating a sensory overload in the opening passages of "Mi querencia" and dwelling in minor-key gloom for the following "Tonada del Cabestrero," exploring the difficult life of a Venezuelan cowherd.

Cows were also central to the work that followed: Hipnosis Mariposa by Mr. Desenne. This work was much more playful, based on a Díaz song "Mariposa ("Butterfly") the Cow." Here the orchestration was much more playful, capturing the spirit of Mr. Díaz' songwriting and bringing out swirling colors in the deep strings and woodwinds. After a hefty application of brass and percussion (something this orchestra does best) the work ended with a single strum of a guitar, evoking its folk roots. As the composer came forward to take a bow, the reception was tremendous.

Next, the program moved south for the second of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras. These works are the Brazilian composer's best-known creations, building a long and sometimes rickety bridge between the rigorous forms of Bach and the free-flowing, rhythm-heavy compositions of Brazil. No. 2 in the series is written for full orchestra, a set of four vivid tone-paintings that capture scenes from that vast and mysterious country. Its bright and shiny orchestrations make it the perfect showpiece for this combination of conductor and orchestra.

Mr. Dudamel set about his task with enthusiasm. O canto do capadocio is written around that underrated orchestra member the saxophone, and its bluesy moan captured the irony in the sad state of the "lazy fella" that the composer meant to portray. "O canto de nossa terra" kept the sax front and center, at the core of a rousing song that built to a powerful climax. "Lembrança do sertão" offered a propulsive dance, while percussive effects and a chugging rhythm drove forward "o trenzinho do Caipira" (literally: "The peasants' little train"). Only the sharp final chords suggest a dark ending as the track plummets into nothingness.

The second half of the concert featured a brash and brassy performance of Petrushka, the middle chapter of Stravinsky's three great ballet scores. Here, the emphasis was on flash over substance, although the Bolivar woodwind section were able to capture the pathos and sad fate of the wry and often cruel puppet that is this work's protagonist. It was followed by the Lullaby and Finale of that composer's Firebird, sounding oddly isolated without the preceding violence of King Kaschei's dance. Still, it showed the quality of the Bolivar horns and strings, which sounded top-notch. A familiar second encore followed: the popular Venezuelan song "Alma Llanera", complete with house-raising maraca solo.

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