The people's choice?

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  November 8, 2007

FRESH BUT NOT ALWAYS WISE: If this is the future of classical, some fans may stick with the past.

Gustavo Dudamel, in case you hadn’t heard, is the 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor who’s going to save classical music. He’s the product of the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, the fabulously successful initiative that’s enrolled some 250,000 youngsters, most of them from poor backgrounds. In 2004 he won the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg. He’s been taken under the wing of Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Simon Rattle. In August 2006, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. (The program was Bernstein’s Candide Overture, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat.) Now he’s been tapped to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, starting in 2009. In his New York Times Magazine profile (“Conductor of the People”) two weeks back, Arthur Lubow wrote, “There was a sense that she [LA Philharmonic president Deborah Borda] had snaffled the Man o’ War or Secretariat of the classical-music racetrack.”

Last night at Symphony Hall, under the joint auspices of New England Conservatory, the Celebrity Series of Boston, and the BSO, Dudamel made his Boston debut at the head of his own Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, which is touring the US. Back home, this orchestra is (or was) known as the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar; its members are all young, but putting the word “youth” in its title smacks of apology, or of inviting modest expectations. If, on the other hand, the idea is simply to attract young audiences, it’s working: Symphony Hall was packed (what’s the last time you saw people holding “Need tickets” signs outside?), the crowd younger than usual, and more Hispanic. It was also quieter than usual, and, glory be, there was no applause between movements.

The originally announced program was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (a BSO commission that made its debut in Symphony Hall back in 1944), the Orchestral Suite from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and “selections from Latin American music,” but someone must have decided that it needed more ballast: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (which the orchestra performs on its first Deutsche Grammophon release, along with the Fifth) was added, and the Latin American music relegated to the encores. That made for a three-hour-plus evening. Dudamel didn’t take the podium till 8:15, and the second half of the concert was preceded by 15 minutes of acknowledgments, proclamations, and presentations, much of it delivered through a malfunctioning mic.

What’s immediately striking about the Simón Bolívar, apart from its youth, is its size — more than 100 strings in the program, and close to that number on stage. The violins were deployed in the “traditional” 20th-century fashion, massed on the conductor’s left; this worked out fine for the Bartók, where at one point in the third-movement Elegia the violins are pitted against the violas, less well in the Beethoven, which was written for an antiphonal arrangement of first and second violins. Dressed, like the male orchestra members, in a suit, Dudamel conducted with a baton but no score.

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