The Venezuelans Take Salzburg
They came, they played, they conquered. Gustavo Dudamel, the “musical phenomenon of the day” (Rome’s La Repubblica) and his Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra, the cream of Venezuela’s music-educational system (“the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world” – Sir Simon Rattle), invaded that staid Old World Musical Establishment citadel known as the Salzburg Festival and took it by storm. The last week of the 2008 festival belonged to the young Venezuelans, making their Salzburg debut: two concerts plus two open rehearsals, led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Dudamel (his Mahler 1 lecture-demonstration is included on this DVD in the “School of Listening”). The first concert elicited the headline “Party in the Felsenreitschule” in the Munich daily Münchner Merkur, whose reviewer proclaimed: “Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra delivers the biggest audience hit of the summer.”
What would Salzburg’s erstwhile high priest have made of it? “As Gustavo Dudamel powered his huge string section ... and fierce brass through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony like a stampede of teenagers through a staid museum,” wrote The Times of London’s music critic, “the faint whirring sound in the background might have been Herbert von K spinning in his grave.” More likely, Karajan (not to mention Leonard Bernstein, whose name inevitably also cropped up in the reviews) would have loved it. He’d have been as excited as his younger colleagues Rattle, Abbado and Barenboim over Venezuela’s system, founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, which could produce an orchestra as musically cultivated as the Simón Bolívar and a conducting prodigy as mature as Dudamel.
Two days after the concert reviewed in the Merkur, the SBYOV and Dudamel reconvened at the Grosses Festspielhaus for the present evening of Beethoven and Mussorgsky/Ravel. In the Triple Concerto, Martha Argerich was making a rare Salzburg Festival appearance (only her second in the last 15 years), partnered by two virtuosos from a younger generation: violinist Renaud Capuçon and his cellist brother Gautier. There is youthful spontaneity and impetuosity in abundance (from Argerich, too, naturally), but also subtle, energizing nuances of phrasing and dynamics. Romantic warmth in the slow movement yields to a high-speed finale – almost supersonic in the coda – with the soloists constantly challenging each other to feats of virtuosity. Dudamel nails down the polonaise rhythm and shows that “he has an extraordinary talent not only to stimulate his players, but also to accompany creatively and imaginatively” (Vienna’s Die Presse). Aided by expert camera work, the chamber-musical teamwork and mutual inspiration in this Triple Concerto may even have greater impact on DVD than it did in the vast Salzburg auditorium.
Expanded to monster proportions for the Pictures – 14 double basses! – the SBYOV delivers awesome weight when weight is required (“Catacombs”, “The Great Gate of Kiev”), but also the most delicate soft playing when that’s called for. These musicians constantly astonish us with tonal beauty and refinement (the hushed, spiritual quality in “Cum mortuis”) as well as iron discipline and absolute concentration (listen to “Baba Yaga” or the prestissimo bustle of the “Limoges Marketplace”).
There are encores, of course – from Austria and Argentina: the elder Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March done with real macho swagger and the final dance from Ginastera’s Estancia, dizzyingly wild. As the Times review concluded: “When these virtuosic Venezuelan youngsters play ... the sense of the New World remaking, refreshing and rescuing the Old is overwhelming.” The standing, cheering, screaming Salzburg audience can hardly believe what they’ve just experienced. Properly, their loudest ovation is reserved for Abreu, the genius behind the phenomenon. Music-making doesn’t get more viscerally exciting, more alive than this. Warning to home viewers: prepare to be stirred, shaken and moved to the core.