The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel is the greatest show on Earth. That was obvious Thursday night at the first of the astonishing orchestra’s two concerts last week in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Critics, of course, aren’t supposed to say such things in reviews, so I quoted Simon Rattle.
But after witnessing the mass hysteria among an audience of 2,200 on Friday night, and after observing an orchestra perform feats no orchestra has in quite the same way, I now have a reporter’s obligation to state the facts. The Earth revolves around the sun; the Big One will, sooner or later, hit L.A.; the Venezuelans, under their 26-year-old conductor, are the future.
For Thursday’s ambitious program, Dudamel demonstrated that a really big band (160-plus) could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee (at least one definition of “the greatest” I accept) -- and also penetrate deeply into deeply penetrating symphonic thought. This was a spectacular, stirring and flashy show.
Friday’s program was even flashier. Dudamel began with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The orchestra was large, far larger than is fashionable in these historically informed days, but not humongous.
There were certainly plenty of basses to dig in ferociously. Dudamel, who conducted everything without scores both evenings, inhabited the orchestra. A wild enthusiastic swoop of his arms elicited a wild enthusiastic swoop of strings. This was bold big Beethoven, but the playing was much too joyously alive to be old-fashioned big Beethoven.
Care must be taken not to condescend to these kids. Some are as young as 12, although most look to be in their early 20s (26 is the cutoff age). They are not great young musicians, they are world-class players, period. They provide uniquely visceral thrills as an ensemble. But in two evenings, I also heard more wonderfully expressive oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, horn and trumpet solos than I could count.
The second half of the evening, devoted to Latin American music, was when the audience began, understandably, to lose it. The orchestra swelled to what must have been close to 200. Jose Pablo Moncayo’s Mexican classic “Huapango” and the more recent and just as lively and populist “Danzon No. 2" by the contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Marquez, were dazzling in their rhythmic vitality and flirtatious dynamics.
Two years before he will become the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director and in but two visits to Disney, Dudamel has already begun to daringly exploit the hall’s acoustics. The Simon Bolivar’s soft playing is as impressive as its earsplitting climaxes. The crescendo at the end of Marquez’s “Danzon” went from nothing to an earthquake in a handful of expertly gauged seconds.
The ballet suite from Ginastera’s “Estancia,” written in 1941 for the American Ballet Caravan, closed the formal program with scenes from Argentine country life. Dances for farmhands, cowboys and the like were made into an Imax-sized epic.
The hall then went dark for 15 seconds. When the lights came up, the players all had on Venezuelan flag jackets and the hall had become a riot of color. A fan of John Williams, Dudamel had asked the composer to conduct his theme from “Star Wars” as a surprise encore.
Appearing as in awe of these players as they were of him, Williams conducted as though he were driving a supercar for the first time, knowing that the slightest touch on the accelerator could produce a galvanic force.
For the “Mambo” from “West Side Story” and the “Malambo” from “Estancia,” yet another surge of electricity sent shock waves through orchestra and audience. In perfect control yet utterly free, the musicians danced, twirled their instruments in the air, swayed in great waves. From the Renaissance to the present, composers have dreamed of exactly this -- the mastery of chaos.
Finally, Dudamel walked into the audience and brought onstage Jose Antonio Abreu -- founder of El Sistema, the program that trains Venezuela’s young musicians -- and enticed him to conduct the country’s national anthem, which was played with rapt fervor. Many in the audience sang along.
Afterward, I heard it suggested that, in a gesture of international goodwill, these players might then have ended with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Instead, they took off their jackets and flung them into the roaring crowd.
As I said, this is the greatest show on Earth.