Dudamel and Venezuelans Disappoint In London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Wagner. Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela: Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London. 8.1.2015 (JPr)

Dudamel and His Orchestra (c)  Chris Christodoulou
Dudamel and His Orchestra (c) Chris Christodoulou


Beethoven: Symphony No.5
Wagner: Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold
Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Gotterdammerung
Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung
Forest Murmurs from Siegfried
Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre


The only other time I have seen Gustavo Dudamel conduct his Venezuelan orchestra was in 2011 (review) when I concluded that despite ‘its occasional very good moments – this was probably the worst conducted Resurrection Symphony at which I have been present.’ Initially, I could not remember what they had performed and Googled myself at the interval and considered that perhaps I had gone soft in the intervening years, because I could not imagine ‘dissing’ music-making like that in 2015. However, I have to say that the Wagner I heard in the second half of this concert was overall probably the worst I have experienced from a professional orchestra – apart from a Das Rheingold I was involved in once in Leicester … but that is another story!

In 2011 the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra lost the ‘Youth’ from its title but is still described as ‘Made up of 200 vibrant, charismatic and brilliant performers between the ages of 17 and 30’ and ‘the flagship of Venezuela’s El Sistema orchestral academic programme.’ In a time of apparent political turmoil in that country both the system and Dudamel himself have come under some criticism. Nevertheless, despite this – and Dudamel’s responsibilities as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – he remains the figurehead ambassador for El Sistema and the power of music to change lives both inside and outside Venezuela, and is in his 15th season with them. One point worth mentioning is that Dudamel is often credited as bringing new audiences to classical music … but this was not the case at the Royal Festival Hall where the average age of those in the sold-out auditorium must have been around 50.

The Fifth Symphony is one of Beethoven’s most popular works because it has accreted over the years the idea that – more than any other of his compositions -it encompasses his struggles, strength of will and genius. From 1800 Beethoven became increasingly deaf and not long after he wrote he would ‘seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.’ Subsequently, he is supposed to have told his assistant, Anton Schindler, that the famous beginning of this Fifth Symphony is when fate ‘knocks at the door.’ Whether its emotional progress can be experienced as a journey from darkest despair to hope reborn, or as a burgeoning triumph over life’s adversities or as something else, is very much in the ears of the listener. There is clearly something portentous in the famous C minor opening and something undoubtedly uplifting about the final movement’s C major coda some 40 minutes later.

Lindsay Kemp has commented that few in the audience at the first performance of the Fifth at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien in 1808 ‘can have been prepared for the brusque, almost visceral assault this unique work was to make on their senses.’ This just about describes my reaction to Dudamel’s account with the orchestra that was reduced to what appeared to be less than a hundred for this symphony with only 6 double basses (compared to 12 and an overcrowded platform for the Wagner).

Dudamel took to the podium for the Beethoven and conducting, as usual, without a score launched into that famous opening making it sound a portentous outburst of ominous dread. He has obviously calmed down over the years and appeared less flamboyant than I remember. To my ears, Dudamel was at his best with Beethoven – and later in the Wagner – with the fierier and louder moments however, when music slowed down it seemed to my ears that tempi drifted and musical phrases lost their shape. The conductor probably thinks this is the route to excitement and interpretive freshness. Undoubtedly the performance had its moments: the cellos and violas gave a robustly-toned account of the themes the composer gives them in the first and third movements, and knowing the work is significant for the orchestral debuts of trombones and the piccolo – here both fine and bright – it must provide a frisson no matter how it is performed. However, whenever this overtly Romantic performance achieved a measure of electricity, Dudamel imposed one of his infamous tempo shifts, or seemed to find an odd approach to accenting that I found distracting.

As for the Wagner …. I would like to know who devised the misconceived second-half series of ‘bleeding chunks’. There exists a wonderful Ring synthesis by Henk de Vlieger that Mark Wigglesworth so memorably performed at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 2012 (review) but here all logic was abandoned. The Gods entered into Valhalla (Das Rheingold); Siegfried woke up and set off on his journey down the Rhine (Götterdämmerung); he then died for his Funeral Music from the same opera, before coming back to life and reliving the Forest Murmurs (Siegfried); and finally we had his aunties (the Valkyries from Die Walküre) enjoying their ‘Ride’!

Dudamel is actually scheduled to conduct Tannhäuser in 2019 which will be interesting if it happens! I really don’t feel the need to dwell on this too much suffice to say that I wasn’t sure with the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla whether Dudamel was auditioning for Bayreuth or the New Year’s Day Concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, as – for the first time in my experience – the Gods waltzed very leisurely onwards. Musical matters improved thereafter but again all the climaxes were emphasised whilst most of the slower passages were allowed to drift. There was no evidence that the massive orchestra – as valiant as it was – had been told the narrative behind what they were playing … or that Dudamel could ever have seen a complete Ring or even listened to it on CD. Nevertheless, many in the Royal Festival Hall gave the concert a standing ovation and were rewarded by the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Even without the words the music, sense and sound should be ‘one’ yet there was none of the transcendence this ‘Transfiguration’ should achieve.

Jim Pritchard


For more about concerts at the Southbank visit http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/.