There has been a lot of publicity surrounding Gustavo Dudamel of late. One can scarcely read an article about him that does not proclaim his precocious talent, championed by Sir Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim. But nothing could have prepared the Proms audience for the drama and vivacity of one of this year's most thrilling Proms, as Dudamel took to the stage with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela.
Of course, this too is no ordinary youth orchestra. Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu as part of 'El Sistema', providing a free classical music education for children in Venezuela in an attempt to overcome social and economic inequality, the orchestra is now signed to Deutsche Grammophon. Indeed, in the first half of the concert it was easy to forget the orchestra consists of young people under the age of twenty-six, such was the obvious commitment to each other, their conductor and the music.
Having previously produced symphonies in regular intervals of a year or two, there was an eight-year hiatus after the end of the Second World War until Shostakovich produced his Symphony No. 10 in E minor in 1953. One of Shostakovich's most subtly dark and complex symphonies, there are also deeply personal elements: the composer's DSCH monogram, the notes D - E flat - C - B natural as per the German transliteration of his name, and another theme identified only recently as Elmira, the name of a student with whom Shostakovich was almost obsessed. With the exception of the odd problems of intonation, the orchestra produced a wholly absorbing performance of the symphony, which quieted a fully-packed Albert Hall. The huge body of strings produced a rich sound that pulsed and throbbed in absolute harmony with Dudamel, whilst some excellent woodwind solos pierced through the tension. Delivering an utterly venomous second movement, the orchestra followed Dudamel's break-neck tempi with precision and gathered an exciting intensity that carried through to the symphony's brutal climax.
It was following the interval, however, that the passionate heat and vibrancy of the Latin players burst forth, winning the most rapturous reception that I, for one, have ever witnessed at a classical concert. For the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein's West Side Story the players showed an obvious affinity with the Latin and jazz inspired rhythms, but also produced some incredibly tender and poignant moments that belied a maturity beyond their years. The following selection; José Pablo Moncayo's Huapango; Arturo Márquez Danzón No. 2 and Alberto Ginastera Estancia - Suite bounced through the hall with carefree delight that left the audience quite literally screaming for more. In fact, a concert that was scheduled to end around 8.45 continued until close to 9.30, as the orchestra and conductor donned Venezuela tops for their encores, Alma Llanera by Gutiérrez and Bernstein's 'Mambo' from West Side Story. There were foot stomps, shouting, twirling instruments and players, who at one point danced off the podium and into the audience. When, as a final farewell the orchestra began flinging their tops into the audience, they were greeted with a level of hysteria usually reserved for a rock festival, rather than the Proms!
Although Dudamel, who conducted the entire evening's performance without a score, was every inch the flamboyant Maestro on the podium, he also showed an enormous level of humility, weaving his way through the orchestra to congratulate the musicians, and taking his bows from their midst. Yet, the most overwhelming aspect of this concert was the irrepressible joy and exuberance that radiated, not only from Dudamel, but each and every player; one had the sense there was a party on stage, and the audience was just fortunate enough to have stumbled across it. Dudamel's appointment to the Los Angeles Philharmonic beginning in 2009 will undoubtedly project him further into the stratosphere, but should you have the opportunity to hear him with his Venezuelan peers do not even hesitate - book immediately.
Photo credit: Mathias Bothor / DG