Prom 37: Ravel: La valse; Hillborg: Clarinet Concerto; Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

Martin Fröst; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel

Royal Albert Hall, 13 August 20085 stars

Gustavo Dudamel (Photo© Sylvia Lelli)The day after the first episode of the BBC's new Maestro series, Gustavo Dudamel's appearance at the Proms could not have provided a better showcase for the conductor's art.

His Proms debut was with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra three years ago as a last minute replacement in difficult circumstances. Now Music Director of the Swedish orchestra, he's obviously built up a fantastic rapport with them. And those who thought this might be a more subdued affair than last season's concert with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra were in for a surprise: the concert culminated in recapturing that same party atmosphere. If Dudamel makes a habit of producing concerts like this, the management is going have a job to stop them overtaking the Last Night as a joyous, effortlessly cosmopolitan and far superior celebration of the exhilarating power of music.

Dudamel's natural communicative gifts as a conductor are astonishing and were employed in a programme which emphasised music's links with movement. Ravel's La valse sounded at points lighter and less weighed down than it can, but was refreshingly fluid, the orchestra lilting and swelling at Dudamel's every command. The conductor, though, was given a run for his money in terms of charisma and communication by Swedish clarinettist Martin Fröst. For the UK Premiere of Anders Hillborg's Clarinet Concerto (Peacock Tales), a space was cleared to allow Fröst to dance, mime and play his way through the half-hour piece. After a slow, haunting introduction played 'normally', the clarinettist donned a mask to embody, we assume, the bird. This required a little adjustment from the audience but what at first seemed interestingly eccentric soon became compelling: this was an unusually fascinating work.

Martin Fröst in Peacock Tales(Photo © Björn Abelin)Hillborg's score is full of originality, ranging from gentle lyricism to bluesy swing and angular modernity. Fröst was instrumental in the inclusion of an element of mime and performed it with total virtuosity, often resembling a sort of demonic Pied Piper. It was all simply but tellingly lit, yet while the importance of colour's relationship with music has been highlighted as an inevitable feature of the synaesthetic Messiaen's anniversary, the way musicians move is rarely openly discussed, despite the fact that in a live event it can have an important effect on the audience's reception of a performance. While Dudamel's own naturally balletic movement on the podium was a constant additional source of pleasure throughout the concert, Fröst and Hillborg's more explicit exploration of the relationship was highly entertaining, as well as thought-provoking. The same freedom of movement was carried into Fröst's encore, a Klezmer arrangement in which the expressive capabilities of the clarinet were pushed to the extremes, to wonderful effect.

Hillborg's concerto is, without doubt, a distant relative of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, where the clarinet is first used to deliberately shrill, maniacal effect in the hallucinatory final movement. And it was the revolutionary and raw expressionism of Berlioz's score that Dudamel chose to emphasise; in an interview regarding the concert, he'd explained 'if it's really crazy, and sometimes ugly, it will be perfect.' The trombones blasted accordingly like fog-horns in the 'March to the scaffold', the clarinet screamed in the 'Dream of the Sabbath' and the final minutes were a delirious, swirling, drug-fuelled frenzy. Throughout the performance, Dudamel employed a refreshing rhythmic freedom and the first movement's passions were tender and impulsive, the music adjusting, we were led to imagine, as the young artist's own heart beat quickens and subsides at the thought of his beloved.

The second movement's scene at the ball started more steadily than is sometimes the case but didn't want for elegance, even though both here and in the first movement the Gothenburg wind sounded strangely subdued. The 'Scene in the country' was dreamy and imbued with tender loneliness and longing. It was in the final two movements, though, that Dudamel's reading came into its own and it's not often that a performance of this marvellous symphony comes so close to recapturing the thrill of the new. Berlioz himself was twenty-seven when he composed the Symphonie fantastique and although it's purely coincidental that Dudamel is the same age, the young Venezualan managed refreshingly to reclaim the work as a powerful, brilliant product of youthful passion.  

There was no way that the audience was going to let Dudamel go without an encore and after gentle piece of Stennhammer, there was a touch of the fiesta. The audience went wild as he launched into a Tico-Tico, a riot of rumba and Latin melody. The Gothenburgers let their hair down as they clapped and danced along to the delight of the audience.

By the evidence of this exhilariting concert the Dudamel magic shows no signs of dimming; let's hope it never does.

By Hugo Shirley

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