Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

The trombones were shrieking. The child beside me was whimpering. My inner child was cowering. Under their music director Gustavo Dudamel, the members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela had spent the last half-hour bludgeoning our eardrums with something along the lines of Mahler-meets-The Godfather, Parts I, II and III.

They seemed, however, to be having fun. Though grown up by now, these players still display a lot of the wild exuberance for which they were so well known as a youth orchestra. And their audience clearly still adores them. This Royal Festival Hall performance — the second of two — predictably provoked a rapturous standing ovation. But how much of that was down to musical merit, and how much was down to what this ensemble symbolises? After all, it’s hard to be hard on the representatives of El Sistema — Venezuela’s celebrated programme of instrumental coaching for deprived youngsters.

Their reading of Mahler’s 5th Symphony lacked neither excitement nor panache, but subtlety was not part of the package. The Trauermarsch sounded brash and shapeless, the Scherzo was hard and steely, any hint of grace stamped out by clunky tempi and articulation. Too often the players offered sheer volume for its own sake, forgetting that a climax with no build-up is no climax at all. Textural nuances were obliterated in the din; the woodwind was frequently blown away by the brass. And while the Adagietto brought welcome respite from the relentless onslaught, the players sounded as if they were treading water until their next adrenaline fix.

Tres versiones sinfónicas, by the Cuban composer Julián Orbón, made a strange companion piece to the Mahler, but it benefited more from the SBSO’s brawny energy. Every phrase of this foot-tapping work throbbed with knockout rhythmic verve, and Dudamel made the most of its fluorescent colours. Even if tonal refinement was not one of the strong points, even if the momentum sagged in the slower central chunk, the last section left the room practically vibrating. No wonder they chose to recycle it as an encore.

Photograph: Nohely Oliveros

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