Eardrums Battered by Caracas Youth Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Revueltas, Castellanos, Shostakovich  Youth Orchestra of Caracas, Dietrich Paredes (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich 31.10.14 (JR)

Revueltas:                Sensemayá
Castellanos:              Santa Cruz de Pacairigua
Shostakovich:          Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”)

This must have been the loudest concert I have ever attended. Several rows of the front Stalls had been sacrificed to accommodate the nearly 200 players of this Venezuelan youth orchestra, best known under their former name of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and their former principal conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and the best-known product of “El Sistema”. The orchestra has now changed its name and one of the former first violins has picked up Dudamel’s baton, one Dietrich Paredes.

The first half , or rather third, of the concert was given over to Central American and South American music in which this orchestra can have few equals (though few other South American orchestras venture to Europe so it is difficult to judge).

Silvestre Revueltas was a Mexican conductor who was born in 1899 and drank himself to death in 1940. His tone poem “Sensemayá” is his best-known work depicting a hunt for a princess who has turned into a snake and who is rescued by a magician. Even at the very back of the hall, the sound was deafening, the percussion were in full war cry. Seven minutes of sheer exuberance.

Venezuelan composer Evencio Castellanos composed his three-movement symphonic piece “Santa Cruz de Pacairigua” in 1954. It displayed some very charming harmonics and counterpoint, though the central movement was rather dull and recalled kitschy film music. The outer movements were, however, quite a show.

The big question of the evening was whether this Latin orchestra could get to the heart to one of Shostakovich’s masterpieces, his “Leningrad” symphony. The answer, sadly, was that they did manage but only in the (admittedly many) loud parts. The militaristic sections were full of bombast and often thrilling but the baleful, melancholy passages were insufficiently phrased and the orchestra’s principals, whilst technically competent, lacked tone and character. Paredes conducted mechanically and had the annoying habit of singing along; he should lose the habit if he wants to follow in Dudamel’s footsteps to lead more mature orchestras. Tempi were often too fast which did few favours to the players and this failed to build up the necessary tension: it was often simply a fully-blown assault rather than a stealth attack.

The orchestra excels at dynamism, exuberance, vitality and verve but of course it cannot match the finesse and polish of a mature orchestra. Ensemble also has to suffer when faced with 14 horns, 13 trumpets, 13 trombones, though the strings (16 double basses for instance) made a full-bodied and well-drilled impact. There was no doubting the many hours of intensive rehearsal which must have been deployed to get this piece to concert standard.

The partisan audience (some waving Venezuelan flags) roared their approval at the end of the concert and gave the youngsters a standing ovation. These were admirable young players with an admirable programme even if our eardrums were well and truly battered.


John Rhodes

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