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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Concert Review: Dancing on the Red Carpet

The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra opens Carnegie Hall's 2016 Paul J. Pelkonen
Gustavo Dudamel leads the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Chris Lee © 2016 Carnegie Hall.
The conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela create a sensation no matter where and when they play. This year, Mr. Dudamel and his musicians were Carnegie Hall's choice to open the 2016-17 season. On Thursday night, conductor and orchestra chose two 20th century orchestral works and a globe-trotting selection of five dances from five very different composers.

The red carpet was out. Diamonds and French cuffs gleamed. It was ironic then, that Mr. Dudamel chose Ravel's La Valse as his opener. On the surface, this is a bucolic celebration in triple time. Scratch the surface and you find Ravel's true meaning, a look at a world dancing frantically toward the midnight hour. This was a big and bold performance in bright colors, coming to a crashing halt.

Crashes, bangs and chugging rhythms are at the heart of Le Sacre du Printemps, the Stravinsky ballet score that caused a riot at its Paris premiere. Here, the audience stayed seated, gripped by the propulsive power of this evergreen score. The menacing tread of the cellos was taken at a very fast pace, with Mr. Dudamel striving for maximum effect when the brasses made their roaring entrance.

This "everything louder than everything else" approach backfired occasionally. Although the orchestra was tight and precise, the dramatic power of the work was undercut by a sense that the conductor was going for the superficial effect instead of the deeper meaning of the music. The final, sacrificial dance was violent and orgiastic but it stopped short of the disturbing truth: the human cost of the sacrificed victim who drops dead in the work's last clattering notes.

Skipping intermission, Mr. Dudamel took the mic to make a brief speech recalling his orchestra's first visit to New York. He told the story of playing for a group of dignitaries at the U.N. ("right in front of the cafeteria") and dedicated the entire concert to José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, that Venezuelan music education program that has become the artistic flagship of this South American country.

Mr. Dudamel then announced each dance in a program that recalled the trademark New Year's Concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic, although with a Western Hemisphere twist. Tradional favorites by Brahms (the "Hungarian Dance No. 2") and Johann Strauss (the kitschy but beloved "Tritsch-Tratsch" Polka) were divided by a bravura performance of Aaron Copland's Rodeo: Hoe-Down. The Copland drew a huge wave of applause from the audience at the fermatt, who clapped in blissful ignorance that the work hadn't ended yet.

There are certain works that the SBSOV is known for, and they ended the gala evening with all three. Alberto Ginastera's Malambo brought the work of this important Argentinean composer before the glittering crowd. Leonard Bernstein's exuberant Mambo from West Side Story worked the crowd to an appreciative frenzy. After a short pause, Mr. Dudamel and his compatriots offered one more work as an encore: the beloved Venezuelan song "Alma Irena" by Pedro Gutierrez, complete with a bold maraca solo from one of the percussionists. 

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats