Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra turn most of Istanbul into ‘believers’

TurkeyTurkey Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Castellanos, Chavez, Stravinsky: Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Halic Convention Center, Istanbul, 8. – 9. 8.2011 (AM)

August 8th:

Tchaikovsky: Hamlet: Fantasy and Overture after Shakespeare, in f minor, Op. 67; Romeo and Juliet: Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, woO; The Tempest: Symphonic Fantasy after Shakespeare, in f minor, Op. 18; Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op. 32

August 9th:

Maurice Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2
Evencio Castellanos: Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, Symphonic Suite
Carlos Chavez: Symphony No.2 “Sinfonia Indiana”
Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite

Tired of reading/hearing about Dudamel? Frankly, so am I. And, no I’m not. Like everyone else, I am a little worried that there is too much hype and publicity going on around him, but at the same time it is music which is being promoted, so how can that be bad in essence? If all the Dudamel hoopla is helping more people attend live concerts, I see no reason to complain. Especially, if the talent is there. And it is. Gustavo Dudamel and the SBSO’s two performances in Istanbul were, in one word: excellent, in two: spine tingling.

Fresh off their highly debated (I caught the live radio broadcast and thought it well-done) BBC Proms performance of Mahler’s Resurrection, the orchestra’s program for the first evening of the two day event was set to mimic that of their recent DG release: Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare Fantasy/Overtures. The album itself was not very well received by critics, often cited as being too dry compared to their live performances. After streaming the album from DG’s website, I have to agree. The music on that CD is prosaic and colorless. Truth be told, the excitement for my first encounter with G. Dudamel and the SBSO was, to a certain degree, watered down by my impression of the album.

First time audiences of Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar expect some boom and bang -and who can blame them? After all, that’s what the press has been promising for the last few years. Which brings me to the potentially problematic program. Sure, the second evening’s program contained some seriously explosive music, but Monday’s two hours of nothing-but-Tchaikovsky-fantasies could potentially do little more than add stickiness to an already viscous August day. Also, the Shakespeare fantasies are a risky way of introducing yourself to a new audience. The pieces, with the possible exception of Romeo and Juliet, are not very familiar to most of the audience and need at least a few good listens to get accustomed to. Add to that the absence of high dynamic contrast in the music – something the Venezuelans excel at, the whole evening might possibly turn out to be a dud.

However, the Hamlet Fantasy Overture was nothing but. The precision with which the Simon Bolivar strings played, coupled with a surprisingly sweet and yearning woodwinds section, made the initial moments of the Fantasy a real delight to listen to. The contrast came soon enough and with a larger bang than I would have expected from the score. With the brass and the cymbals entering the picture, the orchestra presented a thrilling – to the point of being terrifying – Polonius, with all their guns blazing. When we went back to the pianissimo Ophelia section with the sweet oboe leading the way, I was already convinced of Simon Bolivar SO’s agility. The murmuring strings accompanying the woodwinds like an echo soon gave way to the final section, where the ghost appears to Hamlet. With the intensity gear pushed up again, the final five minutes were masterfully overseen by Gustavo Dudamel, who, conducting without a score, added an overall urgency to the music. I thought perhaps that ‘urgency’ was what was missing from the CD.

The sad ‘Friar Laurence theme’ from Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture was as lush as they come. Mr. Dudamel carefully refrained from pushing the melody into melancholy territory. As the music’s pace quickened, and a general sense of uneasiness began to take shape, the conductor’s cues went directly to the bass and the viola section, both of whom did an excellent job in creating ‘the Montagues and the Capulets’ scene. Percussions began to hit harder, pointing to the sword fight. Personally, I never thought the music could be this exciting. It was thus a relief when we heard the initial notes of the love theme beginning to emerge. And they did so by the way of violas leading the way for the woodwinds. The orchestra’s tone was sweet and gentle. The bass section, which so far showed to be a crude force in the orchestra along with the brass, kept a steady continuo and the music, during the lengthy section stayed on its feet rather than drift off to dreamland. The music regained power slowly. Mr. Dudamel transferred power from one section to the next, all the way until the two collosal hits signalling the death of the lovers arrived. It was a truly remarkable experience.

The Tempest Symphonic Fantasy is, if nothing else, a showcase for Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing abilities. The music itself is generally considered to be inferior, compared to the composer’s other orchestral works. Here, Mr. Dudamel took an almost Bruckner-esque approach in bringing the vista of a brewing storm on stage. The already elongated brass chords were extended beyond their norm, their sonic spectrum challengedonly by the swirling strings. Simon Bolivar SO’s bass section (14 strong, mind you) managed to balance the music, which tends to go a little too much on the treble side.

The final piece of the first evening was the Francesca da Rimini Symphonic Poem: a piece where the Simon Bolivar Symphony could finally exhibit their explosive side. Mr. Dudamel paid attention to playing the music as one monolithic whole. In the initial Andante, there was a general sense of uneasiness. The trumpets periodically interrupted the nervous strings, who were playing against the very rhythmic double bass. Gustavo Dudamel’s conception as the music moved into thunderous Allegro sounded like it was formed on the spot. The sense of urgency under which the evening was moving was ever more prevailing during this piece. It certainly has something to do with him conducting from memory, adding crucial touches here and there. My thoughts, once again, went back to their CD: this is not something that can be captured on disc.

Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar SO left the audience a little high and dry when they didn’t play any encores, despite an incessant standing ovation that lasted for minutes.

Tuesday evening’s starter was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite, No.2. I was forewarned by a friend who had seen them do the piece to expect a somewhat slow rendition. Lever du Jour was indeed taken a little more andante than usual, but special attention was paid to bring forth every phrase. The transition to Pantomime was barely noticeable as Mr. Dudamel demanded a understated sound from the oboe. He made the themes rise above the accompanyment only during the flute’s solo passages, which were once again wisely arranged so we could not discern as the theme moved from one type of flute to the next. As the music approached its breaking point, signalled by the short violin interlude, Gustavo Dudamel was quick to delegate the full power over to the percussion. With the double bass keeping the 5/4 tempo, the orchestra attacked the remainder of the piece like hungry wolves: when they were done, there was nothing left of the score that wasn’t touched.

The explosive start to the evening took us straight into Castellanos’ Santa Cruz de Pacairigua Symphonic Suite. The jubilant melodies and rhythms of the Venezuelan composer’s music suited the Simon Bolivar SO perfectly. A large part of the suite is a tug of war between the brass and the strings. Mr. Dudamel made sure the trumpets and the trombones end up as victors, keeping an almost steady hand against the strings to contain them while pumping up the back of the orchestra. He did, however, give the violins their due during the light interlude and the following Latin dance. There was more Latin fare in store following Santa Cruz, this time Carlos Chavez’s Sinfonia India that followed next. The music’s multi layered facade dances around ancient melodies and tribal drums. The score calls for many indigenous percussive instruments and is a full-blooded affair for the most part. With Mr. Dudamel at the helm, the orchestra ripped through the notes fiercely, slowing down only for a brief period in the funeral procession section.

The final piece of the evening, incidentally the one I was looking forward to the most, was Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The orchestra played the popular 2nd suite that starts with the eerie bass introduction. The 14 doublebass’ heart pounding entrance was soon joined by the woodwinds and later the strings almost unnoticeably. Dudamel was set to keep it quiet, and build up on the suspense. Things started to get exciting with Firebird’s capture reanacted by the whirling of the strings, but the orchestra quickly returned back to their serene air. The Dance of the Princesses was light and pleasant, but there was much tension build-up which found its ultimate escape in the Infernal Dance. The accumulated energy from Simon Bolivar’s mean brass section exploded right from the start of this movement. Between the strings bouncing from pizzicato to chromatic quaver notes, the roof-raising trombone glissandi and thunderous timpani, the three-minute storm felt like nothing short of a roller coaster ride. Their Barceuse was restless with the soothing strings interrupted by the haunting horn melody. The conjoined finale arrived sneakingly, slowly changing the atmosphere to a bright and victorious ending.

The audience jumped to their feet right away. Mr. Dudamel, as is his custom, never took a solitary bow, but instead preferred to remain within the ochestra. A delightful episode took place just then: when he went backstage and returned, the members of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra were seated. As Gustavo Dudamel returned on stage to acknowledge the audience still on their feet, he motioned the orchestra to stand up. The members, however, refused, and left him standing by himself and having to accept our gratitude. A very kind gesture on the orchestra’s part.

We were all fired up for at least one encore, and when the lights in the auditorium suddenly went all black for fifteen seconds and came back, the Simon Bolivar members had put on their Venezuela jackets. Mr. Dudamel went backstage again, and when he came back, he brought with him a very young conductor (whose name I couldn’t procure). He entrusted his baton to the young man and sat down next to Mr. Abreu in the first row. The orchestra, under this young man’s direction played one of their signature encore pieces: Arturo Marquez’s Danzon No.2 with great success. As the piece ended and we were wondering if more was on the way, Mr. Dudamel went backstage again, and this time came back with another young man: another rising star of El Sistema, Mr. Manuel Jurado who is the conductor of Simon Bolivar Conservatory of Music Youth Orchestra. Mr. Jurado played another of the orchestra’s signature encore pieces: West Side Story’s Mambo. The young conductor is often cited as the new rising star of classical music from Venezuella. He surely played the part.

When the evening was over, there was much jubilation both on stage and in the hall. Our applause had to end at some point, but not before the luckier ones among us managed to catch the Venezuelan jackets thrown towards us. The audience continued to cheer the orchestra as they made their way out of the building and onto their bus, which took them to the airport and back home. Istanbul was the final stop of their highly successful tour. I hope we get to see more of them in the years to come.

Alain Matalon

Special Note:

The Istanbul Culture and Arts Foundation who organized the special four day event did an excellent job in turning the occasion from a two concert extravaganza into a full blown four day happening, with various events and street performances by members of the Simon Bolivar SO and various small-scale Turkish El Sistema-like music organizations in and around Istanbul. A very fruitful and promising panel took place in which maestro Antonio Jose Abreu (founder of El Sistema) discussed the possibility of a similar musical education system in Turkey (where it is very much needed). Actually, steps have already been taken to initiate a grand plan in which the Venezuelans and the Turks signed an agreement to establish a collaborative workforce for this to happen.