It is as if Venezuela has the biggest and best football team in the world. When the 100-plus young players of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra change into their Venezuelan yellow, blue and red strip for their encores, the festive mood is like being on the terraces when the national team wins the World Cup – raucous noise, patriotic fervour, joyous celebration.
These young musicians and their charismatic conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have won a big following on the international concert circuit. The story of an orchestra forged in deprived neighbourhoods is almost enough to explain that in itself, but seeing them in the flesh brings social theory exultantly to life in a way no textbook could hope to achieve.
Who said lightning never strikes twice in the same place? Two years ago Dudamel and the orchestra electrified the BBC Proms and on Tuesday, the opening concert of their week’s residency on the South Bank, the blistering energy of their playing again hit London like a bolt from the blue. A notice should have been placed on the front doors – “Warning: high voltage hazard inside”.
Dudamel approaches every concert as if it is the only one that ever mattered. With other orchestras, the results of his high-octane conducting can be hit or miss, but his young Venezuelan musicians go with him the whole way. That meant an unashamedly earthy performance of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, sometimes short on refinement, but hurtling along irresistibly when its blood was up.
Their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 was little short of titanic. At every possible moment Dudamel went for the extremes – piling up the huge brass section to shattering volume, driving the symphony at breakneck speed to its climaxes. In no way was this Tchaikovsky for everyday listening, but as a once-in-a-lifetime experience it was unforgettable.
There are other youth orchestras that play this well, or better, but the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra has gone out in front to show the world what classical music can achieve. At the end, as in the best football matches, the players threw their jackets into the crowd – a challenge perhaps to the youth of the UK.
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