The Venezuelan conductor and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra show
America how it’s done.
By Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 3, 2007
SIMON says it is the most important thing happening in classical
music in the world. “Simon” is Simon Rattle, music director of the
Berlin Philharmonic. “It” is El Sistema, the youth orchestra program
“It” might also describe the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of
Venezuela, the cream of a 250,000-student crop, which began its first
U.S. tour at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night under its
music director, Gustavo Dudamel. And if this incredible orchestra
hits San Francisco, Boston and New York with the same revelatory
effect as at the first Disney concert, our country, with its poor
music education, may never — should never — be the same.
Happily, the orchestra and Dudamel, who will become music director of
the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, are hot properties. TV’s “60
Minutes,” which gave El Sistema its first big blast of publicity
eight years ago, was on hand in L.A. to film a follow-up story on
Dudamel, who at 26 is a spectacularly rising star worldwide. The
Philharmonic has been under an international barrage of interview
requests ever since its Easter surprise announcement of Dudamel’s
Both Thursday’s concert and another on Friday night had sold out
quickly, and Internet ticket scalping had reached near Ian McKellen-
like proportions. When an orchestra of 160 slowly filed onto the
Disney stage Thursday, the applause grew and grew. When Dudamel
walked out, he might have been a rock star. When the concert ended,
he might have hit a home run to win the World Series.
The program — Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”
and Mahler’s mighty, 70-minute Fifth Symphony — wasn’t slight.
Dudamel has ideas about these pieces, and they are mostly about how
to make every incident in the scores either heart-stoppingly
thrilling or heart-meltingly tender, how to shape a melodic line in
the most comely fashion and how to coax a rhythmic phrase into
dancing its way to every corner of a concert hall.
The stage was crammed full of youngsters, ages 12 to 26. Individually
these are first-rate players (the horns alone would be the envy of
many a brand-name band). But they also form an organism like no
other. In furious passages, masses of string players swayed in their
seats and wind players bobbed their heads as if guided by a single
animating life force.
“West Side Story” is a story that resonates with these young
Venezuelans. Many come from poverty, and all know about gangs on the
streets of their capital, Caracas. Dudamel’s accents were like
startling gunshots; the brutality of the “Rumble” felt all too
immediate; “Somewhere” was almost unbearably melancholic; and “Mambo”
was a mambo, a real one.
The concert was delayed after intermission to allow José Antonio
Abreu, who founded El Sistema 30 years ago, to get to the hall (his
plane landed at 7:30). His devotees describe him as a saintly snake
charmer who has managed to get the program funded through 10
administrations, with Venezuela’s current leader, Hugo Chávez, the
latest eager supporter.
Mahler’s Fifth was then played as life-and-death music, which is how
Mahler intended the symphony, what with its angry funeral opening,
its waltz-goes-mad Scherzo, love letter Adagietto and neurotic high
Dudamel’s Mahler is not neurotic. But it is violent, and it is
exalted, and it is, at many moments, exquisitely beautiful. The power
and ferocity in the first two movements astonished, given that this
was an ensemble at least 50% larger than the normal Mahler orchestra.
But also, given how expressive and clear the inner lines sounded, a
law or two of physics must have been overcome.
Dudamel has this symphony in his blood — he conducted without a
score. Still, no 26-year-old can be expected to get it all. The
Scherzo, so exciting moment to moment, didn’t entirely hold together.
The slow movement didn’t feel too slow, as it does on his new
recording, but the last movement did slightly. Then again, neither
Leonard Bernstein nor Michael Tilson Thomas truly mastered this
symphony until they were more than twice Dudamel’s age.
No matter, the performance caught Mahler’s spirit, and it caught the
spirit of a generation of young people who have what it takes to make
the world better.
Politically, we bicker with Chávez’s Venezuela. A little rehearsal
time in L.A. was lost because the visiting orchestra’s instruments
were held up by U.S. Customs, which wanted to go through them with a
But musically, Venezuela leaves no child behind, and the results are
an inspiration to us all.