Mahler: 'Resurrection' Symphony

Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Great Britain/Dudamel

Royal Albert Hall, 8 August 2011 4.5 stars

Copyright: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouThere were many splendid musical moments in this performance of Mahler's 'Resurrection' symphony, given by the combined forces of the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. Furthermore, conductor Gustavo Dudamel treated us to the overall architecture as well as to the great many details which make Mahler’s second symphony so special.

However, for me – and perhaps for others too – the event represented more than an excellent concert. As we all know, music is far too often misused for reasons of politics, financial greed, individual egos and other human failures. But here we witnessed a genuine example of the life enhancing possibilities which music can provide.

I should mention the unique system ('El Sistema') in Venezuela where, I understand, free instrumental tuition is available to all children. I assume that some of the players in the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra come from those families which live below the poverty line but whose children, nevertheless, receive dedicated music education. (All of the orchestra's members come from Venezuala's El Sistema programme.)

Here, at this Prom concert, the young orchestra players from Venezuela were joined by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. The singers are all under 25. Indeed, many of them looked closer to 20 than to 30. The choir sings only in the last movement of the symphony but they sat in their places throughout the 90 minute (or longer) performance. Discipline and dedication as well as the love of music united the players and singers from probably vastly different backgrounds. This was a triumph of youth at its best.

Dudamel knows Mahler's score well and clearly identifies with it. He conducted from memory yet he did not miss a single orchestral entry. His conducting technique is highly disciplined but (or because of it) he inspires passionate playing from his orchestra.

Dudamel's physical abilities are of note too: he stood on the conductor's platform for over an hour and a half but I did not see him move anything else than his arms. I liked his relatively slow tempi (as well as his unusually long-held composed pauses) which allowed him to take care of all notes.

Dudamel's respect for every aspect of Mahler's score is admirable. However, at times the soft tutti passages – for instance, those by the cellos and basses near the beginning – were almost inaudible in the vast Royal Albert Hall. On the other hand, it was impressive to witness such a large body (of eighteen cellos and fourteen basses) play so softly.

But the size of the Albert Hall was put to good use too. The off-stage band of brass and percussion was placed somewhere on the top of the Hall, thus fulfilling Mahler’s instructions that they should be as far as possible from the other musicians. At such distance the dialogue between off-stage brass and on-stage flute felt like a conversation between Heaven and Earth (although the sensitive flute playing sounded truly angelic).

The sense of ensemble playing in the orchestra is exemplary, as is also the evident ability of the individual players. Yet, in this orchestra, it is clearly one for all and all for one: the unison passages of the seven on-stage as well as the five off-stage horns sounded like noble individual horn solos. In the fourth movement ('Urlicht') the brass chorale alternating with the mezzo soprano soloist could have passed for an exquisite vocal duet. Oboe, clarinet, trumpet and other solos all impressed. But it is the timpani and percussion section which stands out as extra-ordinary by any standard.

Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson sang with great sensitivity, intelligence, articulation and sense of ensemble. Her striking but tasteful red dress also fitted (as her opening words address the 'tiny rose so red'). Her compatriot, the soprano Miah Persson, did not sound (to this pair of ears) as her reputation led me to expect: her voice production does not seem to be focused, thus her notes were slightly off pitch.

The 170 strong National Youth Choir of Great Britain impressed with its hushed entry and sustained focus. Seeing and hearing this choir (and the Venezuelan players and conductor), even a committed atheist can be tempted to believe in resurrection. Indeed, this particular performance of Mahler's 'Resurrection' in the totally packed Royal Albert Hall felt a bit like heaven on earth. If only the audience would have allowed the last bar, complete with rests, to conclude before giving vent to their enthusiastic outburst of appreciative approval…

By Agnes Kory

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela in the 'Resurrection' at the Proms 2011, Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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