BBC Proms reviews

Prom 48: SBYOV/Dudamel – Shostakovich, Bernstein et al. @ Royal Albert Hall, London

19 August 2007

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Prom 48 will surely be remembered as the most outstanding orchestral concert in Britain this year. At its conclusion, a packed Albert Hall rose as one, shouting their great approval, calling the conductor back time and time again, demanding half an hour’s worth of encores and delaying my bedtime further.It was a justifiably ecstatic reaction to an extraordinary concert: one that will remain imprinted on the cranium.

Written in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony spews the composer’s venomous fury and frustration over decaying, bloodied Russia, accumulated over years of censorship. As is typical with the composer, passages of anguished introspection rub shoulders with brash, often cocksure percussion and brass rhythms. Gustavo Dudamel (conducting without a score) violently contrasted the two, concentrating on hushed textures and interplay of lines in the former and ejaculating the brisker passages with horrifying, agitated urgency.

The orchestra, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, produced miraculously attentive and resonant playing. The strings’ timbre was unusually rich and edgy; the many woodwind solos were pinpoint (the solo clarinet especially); the percussion kept confidently apace with Dudamel’s sometimes daringly fast tempi. The two Allegros displayed an astonishing ensemble security and virtuosity, and one especially astounding given that this is a band of over 200 musicians. It was impulsive, heart-stopping playing, and a performance worth the entry fee alone.

The problem with Shostakovich played well is that it leaves one wanting a stiff drink and a long sleep to recover – we had another half of music to contend with. And yet more slammed percussion and climactic brass writing, this time from Leonard Bernstein. If in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (written in 1957) the playing was a tad scrappier, then the electric charge shot up a notch further. The jazz rhythms brimmed with snap and bounce, and also with an unusually harsh mechanical edge, adding much weight to the work. The Finale was truly luminous, boasting some especially fine horn playing.

Meanwhile, José Pablo Moncayo’s Huapango, Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2 and a set of dances from Ginastera’s second ballet Estancia fizzed with glorious, jubilant melody and rounded off the scheduled performance in vibrant, colourful and virtuosic style. And the encores, though plentiful, were never stodgy and never overdone. Indeed, such was the buzz and thrill in the hall that there did not seem to be enough of them. For once, the celebration (dancing, instrument-twirling et al.) seemed totally unforced and totally deserved.

The orchestra is a product of the so-called El Sistema, Venzuela’s enviable children and youth orchestra programme (involving some 250,000 musicians around the country), yet that this is a youth orchestra, featuring players as young as 12, is of no consequence: this is a superb band by any standard. The playing is professional, committed and urgent, and wholehearted charisma and integrity radiate from every musician. This was one of the finest live concerts that I have ever attended, and its success does the orchestra, the conductor and the BBC programmers the utmost credit.

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Prom 48: SBYOV/Dudamel – Shostakovich, Bernstein et al. @ Royal Albert Hall, London