Review: Gustavo Dudamel and Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar Play Mahler 7 at the Teatro Colon

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Daniel Hathaway

Buenos Aires, June 28, 2011

Venezuela’s Orquesta Sinfónica Símon Bolívar is the crown of the country’s more than 200 youth orchestras, the professional end product of the system of musical training for young people established by the economist José Antonio Abreu in 1975.

The ensemble played a simply amazing performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 to a packed house at the Teatro Cólon on Sunday afternoon, June 26, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, its artistic director since 1999. This was the first of two concerts by the orchestra. Sunday’s was sponsored by The Mozarteum of Argentina.

Venezuela’s El Sistema has been much in the news in the last few years, as has Mr. Dudamel, who recently succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Having never seen him conduct live, I wasn’t sure what kind of podium behavior to expect — though I imagined perhaps the super-kinetic reincarnation of a young Leonard Bernstein.

Not a bit of it. Conducting from memory, Mr. Dudamel was a restrained and efficient leader who drew rich, dark sonorities from the orchestra’s vast string section (over 90 players strong), gave clear and precise cues to a multitude of soloists and allowed himself only a couple of medium-sized gestures at big climaxes. His expert pacing of the work — which is full of Mahler’s trademark subtle tempo changes — and his command of almost infinite dynamic gradations revealed a deep and penetrating knowledge of the score and a clear plan for putting it across to the audience. Any lingering thoughts that Mr. Dudamel might eventually find himself over his head in the orchestral repertory were soundly put to rest by this performance.

Though dwelling on the idea of night time (its second and fourth movements are titled Nachtmusik I and II), and constantly teetering on the cusp between minor and major, Mahler’s seventh symphony makes a remarkably agreeable journey through the composer’s complicated emotional landscape. There are charming rustic touches (the calling horns and offstage cowbells in the second movement) and suggestions of folk music (the sentimental guitar and mandolin strokes in the fourth), wicked little parodies of Viennese customs (the threatening waltz in the Scherzo), and a positively cinematic finale which resembles a parade in which all sorts of musicians file past (was that a Turkish band?) ending in a riotous banging on chimes, cowbells and everything in sight. But those accustomed to Mahler’s stock gestures can find themselves surprised by this work: too often it’s easy to predict where he’s going to go next, but No. 7 is full of odd turns and surprises.

Mr. Dudamel’s players would have followed him off a cliff, so intently were they focused on his every gesture throughout the piece. The ensemble playing was admirable and from the eloquent opening tenor horn solo through the splendid timpani strokes that signaled each return of the Rondo theme in the last movement, individuals in the orchestra contributed flawless solo work. About the only thing one could fault in this performance was the unusual ratio of strings to wind players, which led to a certain imbalance between the two parts of the orchestra.

During the really thunderous ovations at the end of the performance, Mr. Dudamel never stepped back on the podium, preferring to acknowledge his players by standing among them, giving bows to soloists and sections, and putting his arms around the first desk string players. There is a special chemistry between this conductor and his orchestra, and that was completely in evidence on Sunday afternoon.

Published on clevelandclassical.com June 28, 2011