Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra

Carnegie Hall opened its season with a bang. Many bangs, actually. The chief banger — also conductor, innovator, inspiration and popular magnet — was Gustavo Dudamel. For this occasion, he brought his splendid, hard-working Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela to New York. As he did long ago with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among other big institutions, he demonstrated infectious introspection, a splendid technique, a propensity for propulsion and disarming devotion to numerous unconventional causes.

Contrary to expectation, he is no showman on the podium. He beats time rigorously, cues pointedly, sustains clarity and paints with vivid colours. But, unlike some of his celebrated colleagues, his feet never leave the podium. He disowns grandstanding. He lets the music do the emoting. He even avoids the common indulgence of solo bows, constantly standing back to showcase his instrumental collaborators.

It must be worth noting that Dudamel, born in 1981 in Venezuela and now in his eighth season as a Californian, likes to spread his gospel in unusual settings — classrooms, movie houses and innovative digital platforms. Somehow he also finds time to work with some of the world’s most celebrated conventional institutions. Next year he tours Europe with the Berlin Philharmonic.

On this widely broadcast occasion, the rather paltry musical menu celebrated expressive terpsichore. Two official challenges, executed with brilliance and bravado, focused the dynamic extremes of Ravel’s La valse and Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Then came a rousing, informal exploration of something vaguely described as “selected dances from around the world”.

Tongue obviously pressed in cheek, Dudamel proclaimed a tour of the universe via polkas, hoedowns and mambos. At mambo time, he invoked the spirit of Antonio Abreu, who founded this instrumental organisation in 1975.

Encores entailed samplings — all taut and, where possible, tough — of such disparities as Johann Strauss, Ginastera and Copland. The final offering, unidentified, featured salty maraca punctuation. Pop music has seldom sounded so spiffy or so spontaneous. Everyone, out front and onstage, had fun, starting with the downbeat.

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