Strength in Numbers

Chances are that the Philharmonic’s new music director, when he takes over the podium a couple of years from now, will not ask the orchestra to perform in patriotic jackets, nor will he ask the players to fling them out into the audience after the last encore. He is unlikely to demand that they twirl their instruments between solos, or toss them skyward at the slightest provocation. Yet these were some of the shenanigans in the final moments in the second of two concerts last week by the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and its — soon to be our — switched-on conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. With a capacity crowd in the hall tearing down the virtual goalposts and another onstage matching them cheer for cheer, you had to be there to experience the pandemonium. By any standard — social, political, musical — it was totally deserved.

There was a lot of talk about youth orchestras here last week. There was a symposium in which important people — the mayor, Philharmonic people, education people — spoke about the obvious benefits of full-fledged symphony-size orchestras as an extracurricular activity, moving on to forming serious ensembles, like the Bolívar and the Sibelius Academy that was here two weeks ago and the UBS Orchestra still to come, with players ages 18 to 24. We have such orchestras here, like the sleepy American Youth Symphony, whose free concerts at Royce Hall draw big, sleepy crowds; what we don’t have — yet — is a firecracker leader to inspire such an orchestra with a sense of its own importance, to its community, to its players. That will take a few more symposiums.

Here comes Dudamel, and the best news is that he’s real, a serious and dedicated musician who’s seized by the music he’s performing, and that he’s already a practiced hand in forming great and spirited young orchestras. His orchestra numbered something like 200, against our own Philharmonic’s 106. Just the sight of all those chairs on the empty stage was enough to turn you — or me, at least — dizzy. Dudamel led the big works on both programs — the Fifth symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler — from memory; okay, he’s recorded them both and is entitled to know them by heart. What’s important is the way both these works have come to live within him. The baton technique, mostly a forward thrust, is clear and not particularly graceful. His left-hand motions are more fascinating: also not graceful, not swooping, but with each finger delivering a separate message.

Of the two symphonies, I was more won over by the Mahler; I’d held off hearing the disc. Disney Hall offered no resistance to the mighty onslaught of 11 double basses, eight horns and similar bloated figures across the board. There was a fine, light humor in the pacing of the scherzo, and an even lighter touch in the folksy moments of the finale. The notorious — yet noble — adagietto was, to my taste, paced exactly right.

Beyond the inevitable wayward horn here and bassoon there, the Beethoven performance seemed to these ears somewhat waterlogged by the weight of it all. Even with the double-bass contingent whittled down to 10 — from the previous day’s 11 — I found the sound of four horns (for Beethoven’s two) and I-forget-how-many bassoons (for Beethoven’s most interesting scoring, his bassoon pairing) just a shade murky, no matter how excellent the performers and how spirited the splendid young conductor’s choice of tempos. But that crescendo out of the gloomy reaches of the scherzo, and the impact of the trumpets announcing the triumphant arrival at the golden frontier of C major, could not have been more thrilling. That’s why we need orchestras, and conductors, and Beethoven.


The ersatz conviviality of the Bernstein West Side Story dances had begun the first program (of two); now, following the Beethoven on the second, it was time to dig seriously into where these marvelous music people had gleaned their effervescence. Music by Mexico’s Arturo Márquez and José Pablo Moncayo and Argentina’s Alberto Ginastera — all throbbing with hot rhythms and that major/minor delicious uncertainty that colors the lifestyle south of the border — completed the printed part of the program. Then the lights went down for a few seconds; when they came up again, the whole orchestra sported the Venezuelan finery that I’m sure you all saw on YouTube.

Then who should show up but John Williams, to tone things down a peg with the Star Wars theme. (Surely, even he knows better music than that.) Then Gustavo — excuse me, Maestro Dudamel — got his podium back for three more numbers, including a replay of the Bernstein “Mambo” number from the night before, with the crowd getting happier and more insistent and the jacket biz . . . For all I know, they may still be there.

In the audience sat José Antonio Abreu, the distinguished gentleman who, with a group of musical advisers, dreamed up the National System of Youth Orchestras — known as El Sistema — that has now given Venezuela 130 youth orchestras comparable to Simón Bolívar, countless children’s orchestras and more than 30 adult orchestras, many of them peopled by children out of impoverished neighborhoods, given their instruments by the state. Put this together with the chorus that came up a few years ago to perform Golijov’s St. Mark’s Passion and you have a compelling picture of a national musical subsidy that needs a lot of study in this country. Perhaps more than symposiums, even.

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