Every child prodigy is faced with a point at which it’s time to figure out how to navigate adulthood. But you don’t often see this phenomenon happen to an entire orchestra.
The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra has been playing under conductor Gustavo Dudamel for 17 years. Note, carefully, the name of the ensemble. It used to be the Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the flagship calling-card of the Venezuelan music-training program known as El Sistema, devoted to saving kids from questionable backgrounds by teaching them to play in orchestras.
The thing was, the orchestra got really famous, and the kids got really good, and it seemed kind of mean to shove them out when they hit a certain age. So the administrators took away the orchestra’s “youth” appellation instead.
The resulting orchestra, now without the special protection afforded by tender years, amassed on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night at the midpoint of a five-city American tour.
“Amassed” is the right word for this huge ensemble: fourteen basses, eight flutes and a thicket of strings that threatened to spill over the stage. And under Dudamel — now the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of the best-known conductors in the world — the musicians set out to demonstrate that they are, in fact, all grown up.
The Bolivar Orchestra is one of classical music’s favorite stories. It’s so very politically correct. It is supposed to demonstrate the civilizing power of classical music: At-risk children find joy, happiness and whole, healed lives through playing Beethoven.
The kids are exuberant, talented and free of preconceptions; they’ve learned to do something hard, and they exult in it. This has led to a distinctive concert experience that has sat just to one side of gimmickry: an extra-big orchestra playing with elan and finishing its concerts by dancing on stage to Bernstein’s “Mambo,” sporting jackets in the colors of Venezuela.
(“Mambo! Mambo!” audience members called out Tuesday.)
Classical music tolerated this rowdiness because these kids represented a future it could agree with, but there has always been a hint of a trained-seal aspect, young people taught to do something an audience will like. So what happens when these kids come of age?
Not surprisingly, Tuesday’s concert showed a large number of people working to forge an identity.
Who is the Bolivar Symphony Orchestra? They’re huge. They’re Latin — Carlos Chavez’s dynamic “Sinfonia India” and Julian Orbon’s “Tres Versiones Sinfonicas” made up the first half of the program, both big, amiable pieces that call for a lot of instruments, the Chavez more loose-limbed, the less familiar Orbon more uptight.
And they aspire to high seriousness, on a big scale. In the second half, the concert moved into Germanic megalith mode with Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony,” a tone poem depicting a day in the mountains, with the obligatory storm and peril, by means of a huge orchestra sprawling across 45 minutes and 22 individual movements or vignettes. Seriousness is an impression of scale rather than content; like the two preceding pieces, the Strauss mingled largeness of forces with lightness of expression. Its storms are stormy, but they pass quickly.
Dudamel is a remarkable conductor, though there are some who think he can’t be judged in performances with this ensemble because they have been playing together for so long they can hardly help getting it right. (“We are like a family,” he said from the stage.) Certainly, he controlled the music with ease and without pretension, bringing the orchestra from full ear-piercing cry — even the Kennedy Center’s brand-new Rubenstein Family Organ got a hearing in the Strauss — all the way down to the single voice of a flute. And the players are fiercely disciplined and play cleanly.
The risk this orchestra has always run is of merely giving lip service — of playing works such as the Alpine Symphony simply because they can and the works are there. You could argue there was more connection with the Chavez than with the Strauss, which is a somewhat chilly, craggy work to connect to.
The final bid for maturity came with the first encore, when, in spite of the calls from the hall, Dudamel plunged his forces into something more somber and searing: the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” It all added up to an interesting bid for maturity. And if the orchestra is still feeling for its grown-up identity, it still plays with a fire that many other ensembles can only dream of.