A mixed bag from Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra

Gustavo Dudamel, Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Southbank Centre Jan 8th 2015.

Both orchestra and conductor orchestra are new to me, and this was my first time listening to them. (Yes I live under a rock as I am not in London and don’t have a TV.) For those about to shut the browsing windows thinking my opinion is thus invalid or worthless, I grant you this but I appeal to the novelty of this concert report as coming from one who is new to the experience of hearing them, and the opinions here given without prior knowledge of the capabilities or potentials of all concerned.

Or, very little prior knowledge, as they had been praised to me the night before as a young orchestra, vital and somewhat unique (though for youth, similarities with Barenboim’s come to me) and so, on strength of programme, I went.

Programme:

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

My immediate post-concert analysis was of a group with a fine sound, brash in places – intentionally so I decided – with an approach not exactly unrefined as more ‘heart-on-sleeve,’ a group who have a fine conductor to support and push them, albeit one not quite ready for Wagner. As a result, the evening was for me “a mixed bag.”

I went with a much more knowledgeable friend who commented that Dudamel’s approach and product (if not intention) was reminiscent of the old Stokowski fireworks-and-sound pressure-levels of the 1940s.

Dudamel (copyrighted by photographer, uncredited)

Dudamel (copyrighted by photographer, uncredited)

The first work given was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C minor.  Straight away the S.B.O. set out their intent with the famous opening motif: strident (hard not to be, and immediately loud and full of attack,) and they sustained this intensity of expression throughout the entire evening. Such was their intensity that here I truly understood why some had likened the famous opening motif as the hand of Fate knocking, and though I don’t exactly subscribe to the idea, the playing certainly grabbed the attention. If the second movement wanted slightly more gentility or tenderness in the main theme and its re-appearance, the third and fourth made up for it by way of exuberance.

I came to hear certain lines in a new way just because of this full-blooded expression. The piece as a whole brought back to mind just why some considered Beethoven quite radical (Goethe apparently called the work “a threat to civilisation”) and the composer’s voice came through clearly. Stronger, I began to hear consonances with later works I had not considered, especially with the 9th Symphony’s third movement and with this 5th’s third, the 7th’s final movement. It was clear to hear that the seed which led to the 7th’s Symphony, and its description as “ the apotheosis of dance” had been planted early on.

Dudamel drew well the broader dynamics (crescendi especially were fantastic) as were themes which pass from section to section: it was finer shadings which were sometimes blunted. I recall likening what I was hearing to the equivalent of a musical cosh or bludgeon, such was the focus on sonority over subtlety, on which a hypothesis. (Here again credit to my friend for suggesting.) For Beethoven, there may perhaps be an orthodoxy of politese which has reigned, and influenced performances and recordings (dating from when I can’t say without further comparison with recordings.) The tendency to play him in HIP with smaller ensembles may be historically accurate but of course attenuates the sound. The treatment offered here by Dudamel might be his attempt to work counter to that historical treatment. It may too be because he thinks it is more fun, or that audiences will appreciate it.

       “This was again, a brash rather than cooly calculated reading.”

For me though, I smiled often, thought of the points above and thought that in general it bustled and fizzed along. Dudamel’s Beethoven mission mostly a success. I went into the interval with high hopes for his Wagner, but sadly these were premature.

On paper it looked set to thrill: each piece would showcase the full orchestra, the pieces replete with gratifying fffs and fine themes. Sadly, Dudamel’s Wagner seemed by contrast tense, ill-mixed and worse, too slow. Of course for Wagner, a full sound works well, Wagner at full tilt should (at least for me)  be visceral, it should thrill and set the pulse racing. Ride of Valkyries should and did come close to achieving this but from my position behind the orchestra, perhaps a little too much prominence given to brass and wind (out front perhaps better.) At times a melange of sound rather than crisp wall. I would have liked more of a “shimmer” to the sound which was not forthcoming. This was again, a brash rather than cooly calculated reading. I am reminded that Solti’s recordings were sometimes noticeable by their trademark “blare”: here something similar.

Entry of the Gods sounded a little leaden. Hampered by a slow tempo, the majesty and magic didn’t quite emerge. Forest Murmurs went quite well, but the whole sound could have been more fey. Siegfried’s Funereal March was again too slow, it plodded along where it should have well, marched, and as with the same’s Rhine Journey which preceded it, it all came a bit unglued: cohesion was lost, not with the orchestra – who played well – but motifically. Dudamel failed to tie each idea up moment to moment, to knit the piece as it occurred. With Siegfried, the double basses could have used a little more menace, for me they must sound malevolent not lethargic. My friend and I both agreed that Wagner’s intent was quasi-religious, or at least Arch Romantic: the power of music to move or even transfigure into redemption. Here was the force without the armature of strong foundation. It seems David Nice at ArtsDesk thought as I did, that grief could have found voice in Siegfried here, but it misfired.

If the programmed Wagner offerings were merely OK, and got better as it went along, the encore was qualitatively a step above the whole evening. Right from the outset Tristan’s Liebestod shimmered and sung, as if the band had finally found their gear.

Credit must go to an especially fine woodwind section: oboe and clarinet especially strong, especially during Forest Murmurs, as well as a good brass section, strident and not pungent.

Lastly my friend queried why it was all in such an odd order. Why have Siegfried die and then the forest murmur? A fair point I think.

I would like to hear more of Dudamel’s Wagner after giving him a few more years exploration and thought. All the musical strengths and potentials are there, but the care to knit motifs and shade was not. *

 

 

Concert Snark: minimal. Coughing as always the main offender. There was some “coughing for TV” too as we were filmed, too. Some juice got sucked out of the place due to very tentative inbetween movement applause, an intrusion which had essentially ceased by Forest Murmurs. There was some inexcusable and careless door smashing too in during one quiet part of our Wagner programme. Also: to the couple who decided to whisper during the quiet bits Siegfried Death March, everyone can hear you and you are both boors.

 

* I am told that Dudamel has recorded:

 

Even the cover looks quite retro. I might give it a miss, myself.

 

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