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Michael Avagliano

It came from Caracas

November 13, 2007 at 8:32 PM

Has it really been two years since my last entry? How time flies when your life changes... but life changes are not what I'm here to talk about.

I know many other people have posted, blogged or otherwise commented about the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and FESNOJIV, the Venezuelan youth movement of which the orchestra is the centerpiece. I feel like a bit of a trendsetter, because my wife Evelyn Estava was a product of the youth movement well before it was well-known, and long before Gustavo Dudamel, Gabriela Montero, and the rest of the Venezuelan contingent burst onto the international scene. She and I have been working in our own way to introduce audiences to the Venezuelan musical traditions through our quartet and the orchestras that we perform with, so I'd like to give my own personal take on what I saw last night at Carnegie Hall. On the program was the Bartok _Concerto for Orchestra_ and Shostakovich 10, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Bartok and Simon Rattle the Shostakovich.

The orchestra is enormous, to begin with -- the Carnegie stage wasn't big enough for everyone, so they had to pare down to 19 violas, 17 cellos and 12 basses. I couldn't count all of the violins because of my vantage point from the second balcony. And this massive number of people managed to play as one cohesive unit through some of the most difficult repertoire to put together. The winds and brass -- and there were plenty of them to spare as well, including 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 5 bassoons, and 4 oboes -- moved and breathed as one, in a manner that can only come from both an innate sense of what the music requires as well as long and intimate knowledge of each other's mannerisms. You would see this in Berlin, or New York, where the sections have been working together for several years or even decades. But to see it from young players, almost none of whom are over 25, is remarkable in and of itself.

I found Dudamel to be above and beyond the level of the hype. He is charismatic, powerful and a musician's musician on the podium. Some might call it showing off, but both he and Simon Rattle conducted without a score, which I found mildly astonishing. What most impressed me, though, was the difference in the orchestra under the two conductors. To my surprise, I thought the orchestra was tighter under Dudamel, and by tight, I mean tight -- every entrance, every nuance, every rubato from the enormous string section was synchronized. And to hear Bartok played by these forces with that kind of precision was startling to say the least!

Under Rattle, the orchestra took on a much darker quality. It was not quite as unified in terms of entrances or pizzicati -- obviously he wasn't all that concerned with absolute precision. But the color was richer, creamier, and the dynamic contrasts were breathtaking, especially in the scherzo, where the strings literally disappeared into nothingness at one point.

The reaction of the audience struck me as well. I've never seen an American audience demand an encore the way that this one did. In finishing the concert with the Shostakovich, Mr. Rattle apparently didn't expect to need one, but we simply wouldn't let the orchestra leave the stage without it, so there was some discussion onstage as to what to play. After a consultation with the concertmaster and a shrug from the timpanist, they launched into the Mambo, despite the percussion having none of the right instruments on stage, so that the timpanist had to play the mambo rhythm that would normally be on congas or bongos! And in true Venezuelan fashion, the dancing, twirling and stomping began.

The most amazing aspect of the performance was the energy. This was not professionals going through the motions of "yet another performance". Nor was it well-intentioned kids playing with youthful exuberance but not perhaps the most discipline. This was professional discipline with the energy that comes from the feeling that music is life, from playing like your life depended on it, which is the attitude that is instilled in the youth movement from the beginning. That energy was evident from the first note of the Bartok, and radiated its way throughout the performance.

Not all of the members of Simon Bolivar become professional musicians. They will go on to careers in law, medicine, science, finance, etc. But that discipline, that energy and that enthusiasm is something that translates into any profession, and if only a small part of FESNOJIV could be transplanted here to the U.S., we could transform this country's educational landscape, and I would have nothing but high hopes for the musical life of this country. I saw the future of classical music last night, and it came from Caracas.

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