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Simón Bolívar Symphony

The last time we reviewed the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, they still styled themselves as a youth orchestra, the top-level ensemble of the country's famed music education system, El Sistema. As such, they are a high-energy ensemble, a vast number of musicians, mostly young and avid, who piled onto the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night, at the invitation of Washington Performing Arts Society. As with the solo recital by Yo-Yo Ma the previous evening, although the music making was not the most memorable, it is heartening to see classical music's broad appeal to a large audience, although in this case it comes mixed with uncomfortable nationalistic overtones.

El Sistema's most famous product, Gustavo Dudamel, was back at the podium, and he led an assured, broad reading of Richard Strauss' tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie. This was the sort of music a group this large was meant to play, vast in scope and character -- four harps (doubling the two parts, one assumes), twelve horns, organ, wind machine, thunder sheets, and all. It is little surprise that the massive crescendos, the offstage brass fanfares, and the booming storm scene -- communicating the terror of being caught in a thunderstorm while exposed on a mountain randonnée -- were thrilling. Dudamel's challenge with this group is to contain it, to refine their sound, and work remains in those areas. The smaller chamber-sized moments were not always together or in tune, although the odd passages of the score -- the shimmering cascade of the waterfall, the cowbells and bleating herds -- were fun.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra: All grown up on the Kennedy Center stage (Washington Post, December 6)

Tim Smith, The refreshing power of Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Bolivar Symphony (Baltimore Sun, December 6)

Andrew Patner, Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar orchestra bring vigor and finesse to Symphony Center (Chicago Sun-Times, December 3)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Dudamel and Bolivar Orchestra spark an audience frenzy in Chicago (The Classical Review, December 3)
The first half seemed flimsy by comparison, folk-influenced pieces by Latin American composers. Strauss towered over these works in melodic invention, harmonic color, and especially orchestration, and their rudimentary nature sounded vastly overplayed by a Strauss-sized orchestra. Carlos Chávez's Sinfonía India did not receive much nuance, a slender suite of dance tunes that benefited from the group's considerable verve of tone. Julián Orbón's Tres Versiones Sinfónicas seemed to come together less easily, some raggedness appearing in the sections without percussion to calibrate the ensemble. The second movement, inspired in some way by medieval music, does not sound all that medieval and, worse, drags on and on without really getting anywhere. The third movement, by contrast, is a percussion-centered lark, short enough to serve as a brilliant orchestral encore.

Hear the performance of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, live at Carnegie Hall, via Internet radio (December 10, 8 pm).

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