The Bolívars tackle Strauss with Gust[av]o

As Alpine Symphonies go, this was a Matterhorn-scale reading. Probably best viewed from a Romantic distance, but nonetheless breathtaking in scale.

The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, teamed with their charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, almost certainly need no introduction. If they do, get yourself googling and within minutes you’ll be well-versed in the kind of hyperbole that surrounds them on their travels. As I contemplated a concert at the Festival Hall on a stuffy Tuesday night, it had a hint of the off-putting about it. Approaching a little warily, perhaps even slightly icily, they certainly thawed me.

Their starter for the evening was by an Argentinian composer, Esteban Benzecry, who was gratifyingly present in the auditorium to join in the receipt of general adulation. The work (Rituales Amerindios) was by turns angular and lush, with rather a fondness for big loud percussion-driven passages that suited the Bolívars’ grandly-upscaled forces. I’m not sure it will live with me for long, no matter how long it took for the reverberations to die away.

So the main course was Strauss’s (at times) equally heavyweight Eine Alpensinfonie. Half of the sport lies in trying to work out, as you follow the extensive programmatic structure of the piece laid out in the programme (On the Glacier – Dangerous Moments – The Summit – Vision – Mists Rise – etc.) whether you are are in fact where you think you are, all the time pegging your progress to obvious staging posts such as the cowbells that confirm you are indeed on the Alpine Pasture. I am not going to mark this down as the finest Alpine Symphony ever presented; it was the loudest, I’ll wager. Which is not to say it couldn’t also strike some more sensuous and mysterious chords along the way. The string tone – with so many of them – was a gorgeous cushion of sound, and they wound themselves darkly and artfully around the opening and final passages, representing transition from and to night. Brass was meaty and resonant; woodwinds contributed bright, incisive detail. Yes, some entries were slightly scrappy, some intonations a bit ‘off’; overall, though, it simply bowled everything before it for sheer scale, conviction, energy and bravura.

And it is that quality that, quite simply, floored me. Watching the orchestra play, from close quarters in the side choir seats, was a stunning experience. It is not to downplay their tremendous skill and quality to say that their sheer enthusiasm is a joy to behold. By way of illustration, I was transfixed for periods by their principal timpanist, who attacked his part with almost febrile concentration and adrenaline – only then to sit watching Dudamel, almost conducting along, using small hand gestures and transfigured looks to usher his colleagues into a notable chromatic shift or to signal the breaking forth of a resplendent chorale. When joy in music-making is so evident, I can’t help but be swept up in it. Bravo them. Let them have their hyperbole: especially in such dour times, there’s a place for such an overt, heart-on-sleeve approach to music-making.

Oh, I nearly forgot dessert: Bryn Terfel popped on for an encore of the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla, from Das Rheingold. Now that’s what I call a bonus…

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