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

Time moves on. The young players from the back streets of Caracas who captured the public imagination when they toured the world’s musical capitals as the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra are no longer as young as they were. The word “Youth” was dropped from the orchestra’s title five years ago. The players look as if they are nearing their thirties.

Otherwise, though, nothing seems to have changed. This concert, the first of two at Southbank Centre, brought them back to the scene of some of their most memorable successes, once again with Gustavo Dudamel as conductor, and playing with the same combustible mix of raw energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm that set the audience cheering at their Proms debut back in 2007.

In short, they still play like a youth orchestra — for good or ill. It is always exciting to see a concert platform heaving with players, as it usually is with youth orchestras, and the massive sound made by the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra governs the kind of music-making it can offer. Subtlety is barely an option and that is not Dudamel’s style anyway. He stamped out the opening motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 with the orchestra’s full force, not so much fate knocking on the door as almost breaking it down. Conductor and players threw themselves into the music, riding roughshod over patches of rocky ensemble and careering around precipitous changes of tempo. The finale was a blaze of brassy triumph. This was all-or-nothing Beethoven and quite gripping.

After the interval even more players appeared (12 double basses alone). Excerpts from Wagner’s Ring might seem to invite excess, but now the sheer size of the sound became unwieldy and Dudamel’s heavy-handed conducting did not help. There was some good individual playing, notably some poetic wind solos in the “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried, but brass tuning was poor and massed strings were on the clumsy side. The gods entered Valhalla so slowly that it sounded as if they did not want to go. Siegfried’s Funeral March dragged its feet. Only with a rousing “Ride of the Valkyries” did Dudamel and his players get airborne with the uplifting sense of exhilaration that is their trademark. At last that youthful spirit was in the air again.

Photograph: Nohely Oliveros

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