Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Nohely Oliveros
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: Nohely Oliveros © Nohely Oliveros

As I listened to this, the first concert in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra’s latest Southbank Centre residence, my mind turned to Pierre Boulez, who died earlier this month. What would he have made of these performances of two Stravinsky ballet scores, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, I wondered? Under chief conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the players gave their all; and with the orchestra’s massed ranks flooding the platform, their all invariably amounts to a lot, at least in terms of volume.

It’s impressive and often thrilling. But instead of a deft palette of colours, they seem only to have a dimmer switch offering degrees of brightness. Of vigour there’s a great deal; refinement and pinpoint precision — those Boulez hallmarks in this music — were in rather shorter supply.

This was especially so in Petrushka, which had replaced Stravinsky’s earlier Firebird on the programme. There are some fine soloists in the orchestra, and much of the more intricate instrumental writing was dispatched with an impressive cool. It’s difficult not to be bowled over by the sheer sound of the bigger orchestral tuttis. But this score needs a great deal more subtlety: the puppets of the story here became clumsy colossi.

The Rite of Spring is a different matter, and reacted better to the big-boned, broad-brush Simón Bolívar sound, and to the large-scale approach Dudamel by necessity takes. Here was a Rite looking back to Romanticism, perhaps, rather than forwards, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The massed strings pounding out the Augurs of Spring chords were properly awe-inspiring, while Dudamel turned the screw powerfully at every climactic dissonance. Again, dappled colours and refinement were in short supply, and the blare of the orchestra’s brass was fatiguing, but the brute power of the performance was undeniable.

The advertised programme offered not much more than an hour’s music, and was supplemented by two encores: the finale of The Firebird and Aires de Venezuela, which, arranged as kind of mini-concerto for maracas, gave us the orchestra from Caracas at their irresistible best. Although all ostensibly grown up now, they still too often sounded like a youth orchestra in the Stravinsky.


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