Correction to This Article
The review incorrectly identified an encore performed by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela on April 6 at the Kennedy Center. The work was not a medley of Latin American tunes; it was Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia."

Music Review: Gustavo Dudamel Conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's beside the point to write anything as prosaic as criticism of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Its members traffic in being young and exuberant and wonderful. They filled the sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night with an active and benign energy. The audience loved them, and loved their brilliant conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and loved itself loving them, and loved music that had the power to bring it all together. The orchestra is like a cult, and its concerts are big happy be-ins, with the significant difference that nothing bad is happening to anyone as a result.

You don't usually hear shouting like this from the audience at an orchestra concert. You don't usually feel this kind of excitement at an orchestra concert. I can sit back and judge whether it's good or bad or getting a little out of hand as the group continues its rise, but the phenomenon is undeniable and pretty incredible. What the orchestra is best at is visceral energy and rhythm; its members connect to the music they've learned by playing it as if it were all about youth and vigor and fire. There are 180 players onstage -- the Concert Hall stage had to be built out to fit all of them. All of the players are 26 and younger; and when they really dig in and connect with the music -- always in the parts that are fast or loud or percussive -- the sheer physical force of it is amazing.

The point is raw energy; in fact, they seem to cultivate it. So it's not an orchestra that plays with a lot of finesse. It doesn't matter.

Dudamel, of course, is a natural talent. He takes over in the fall as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; he led the Israel Philharmonic at the Kennedy Center in November; but the Bolívar orchestra is his stomping ground, where he grew up, cut his artistic teeth and has served as conductor for the past 10 years. The result is a fluid ease in his interplay with the musicians. He says a lot in interviews about his enjoyment of making music and the fact that the orchestra is his family. He actually projects enjoyment with every orchestra I've seen him lead, but this concert appeared to show him kicked back, relaxed, at home. Which meant, sometimes, shockingly beautiful outpourings of tonal color (in Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe"); sometimes, an intuitive sense of rhythm (he conducted all three pieces, including Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," without a score); and sometimes, looseness verging on the sloppy -- which itself became part of the intimacy of the show.

The show is intimate because the orchestra is the main event. The group often tours with soloists, but Monday's concert showed it certainly didn't need a soloist to captivate an audience: Three big orchestral pieces appeared to be perfectly satisfying for everyone there, and I'd wager no one missed the usual bonbon of a concerto. This is partly because of Dudamel's complete engagement in every moment. You don't get sophisticated architecture, but rather one musical event after another that challenges you not to listen. The group grabs and holds the ear with sheer energy, like a rock band; and like a rock band it brings its fans yelling to their feet.

The problem is that the players are so focused on intoxicating energy -- and so reinforced by their audience in the belief that it's delightful -- that they don't know quite what to do when it's not there. They brought an almost shocking sensuality to "Daphnis and Chloe," and "Rite" was crisp and driving, whenever it was loud. But the one place where the evening notably flagged was "Rite's" second half, more subtle and variegated; they played it accurately, but it wasn't what they were there for, or what their audience was there to see. There was a lot more excitement around "Santa Cruz de Pacairigua," a mid-20th-century patchwork of a piece by the Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos, which Dudamel occasionally programs as evidence of his interest in more-or-less contemporary music. It's a fun piece, depicting a religious festival and studded with local color and altogether not of much consequence, but it offered more of the stirring music that got everybody going.

And the risk is that all this talent might descend into mere schtick. The encore number, at least, is so well known (not least from documentation on YouTube) that the audience was clapping rhythmically and shouting "Mambo! Mambo!" well before the players donned their signature tracksuit jackets, in Venezuelan colors, and launched into the medley of Latin American tunes and Bernstein's "Mambo" from "West Side Story," standing up and dancing and twirling their double basses and throwing drumsticks in the air. It's not quite like anything you've seen at other orchestral concerts, and when they started taking off their jackets and throwing them into the auditorium, well-dressed people of a certain age, as well as the many young people in the audience, stampeded down the aisles to get their hands on one. The excitement is great, but where does it lead? The hope: to newly energized audiences and a new sense of potential for orchestras. The fear: to arena concerts of "lite" greatest hits. Time will tell.

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