By Caldwell Titcomb
Boston now knows what the international shouting has been about this year. In the field of classical music, the greatest buzz has focused on the frizzy-haired young conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (SBYO), which came to town for a November 7 concert in Symphony Hall.
This group emerged from a government-sponsored music-training project called “El Sistema,” founded in 1975 by the musician Jose Antonio Abreu (b. 1939), who was on hand in Boston and during intermission received official testimonials from the city. Some quarter million youngsters (as young as four or five) are given instruments and musical training by 15,000 teachers. Three-quarters of the students live below the poverty line, and some are rescued from criminal activity. They feed into 30 orchestras throughout the country. (Arthur Lubow’s comprehensive article about the system appeared in the October 28 issue of the New York Times Magazine.)
One of the students was Gustavo Dudamel, born on 26 January 1981. He learned the violin, and then began studying conducting in 1996. His talent proved so extraordinary that he was named music director of the SBYO at the age of 18, a post he has now held for eight years. The SBYO draws the cream of the country’s talent, and currently numbers 200 players in their teens or early twenties.
The orchestra has been touring abroad and is now visiting several American cities. This summer it gave one of the Proms concerts in London’s huge Royal Albert Hall. Its performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony was the finest I have ever heard. Members of the press were suggesting that this was “the greatest Prom concert of all time.”
Most of the orchestra members were on stage in Symphony Hall on Wednesday. Its concert was Boston’s first triply sponsored event: by the New England Conservatory, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Celebrity Series. All three should be happy today.
The program presented works by three B’s – not the traditional Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but Bartok, Beethoven and Bernstein. Respectively we heard the Concerto for Orchestra, the Symphony No. 7 and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.
In the framing works, more players were used than in the usual symphony orchestras. There were 19 second violins instead of 13, 16 violas instead of 12, 15 cellos instead of 9, and double the customary number of horns, trumpets and trombones. This practice has the danger of producing muddy textures, but everything was clear and well balanced.
The 40-minute Bartok concerto received a magnificent reading. Dudamel, conducting all evening without a score, is a kinetic figure who gives cues impeccably. He obviously enjoys what he is doing, and conveys his intense feelings to all the kids. The audience gave the rendition a standing ovation, which doesn’t often happen with the opening number on a program. The work itself was the last orchestral piece that Bartok completed, and remains his most popular. It is worth recalling that the concerto was written for this very hall and premiered here under Serge Koussevitzky in the fall of 1944. (The 1944 performance, with a slightly shorter ending than Bartok finally settled on, has been preserved on a CD recording.)
Dudamel reduced his forces somewhat for the Beethoven symphony. He took the scherzo and finale a bit faster than usual, but his players were with him all the way, and elicited another standing ovation. This was the most exciting performance of the work I have heard since the young Michael Tilson Thomas led the Boston Symphony in it way back in September of 1972. The Bernstein suite had a beautifully suave rendition of “Somewhere,” and plenty of ebullience in the Latin American portions. Again a standing ovation.
Before the three encores, the players changed into bright jackets of red, blue and yellow, ornamented with white stars (echoing the nation’s flag) and the word “Venezuela” on the backs. There was a reprise of Bernstein’s “Mambo” section, and two exuberant works by the famous late Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and the little known contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Marquez (b. 1950). At points the cellists and contrabassists twirled their instruments, and by the end most of the kids were on their feet leaping to and fro while still playing the music. Their energy was palpable.
For this occasion Symphony Hall was full. There were lots of youngsters in the audience, which during the music was as quiet and attentive as I’ve experienced there in years.
Some eyebrows were raised last spring when the New York Philharmonic announced that its next music director would be Alan Gilbert, who is now only 40. The Los Angeles Philharmonic startlingly followed up by announcing that Dudamel, now 26, would take over as its next conductor in 1909 (he will continue to lead the SBYO). Dudamel won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004, and is currently the principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden. With three concerts as guest conductor in Los Angeles, Dudamel made such an impression that the trustees realized they had found what they wanted – and age be damned.
There has not been such a podium ascendancy since Guido Cantelli began conducting professionally in 1943 at the age of 23, and astounded the world with his prowess only to die in a plane crash at 36. We can only pray that Dudamel will be around to provide plenty of excitement for many decades to come. His physical stature may be relatively small, but his musical stature is already colossal.