La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar rock Toronto opera house

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh 

It was good to be Venezuelan at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last night. If you weren't, you certainly secretly wished you were. Just look at Toronto Mayor David Miller. He went off script on stage flaunting about marrying a Venezuelan and was cheered and applauded for it. 

The fuss? The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Led by 28-year-old dynamo Gustavo Dudamel, the 250-strong ensemble made their Canadian debut during the Glenn Gould Prize Gala, where Dr. José Antonio Abreu — the Venezuelan economist and amateur musician who made all this fuss possible in the first place — received the prestigious triennial prize.

Abreu, who entered the stage to a standing ovation at the Four Seasons Centre, founded the State Foundation for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela, commonly known as El Sistema, in 1975. The system involves some 250,000 students across Venezuela and has been credited with improving the lives of young people who might otherwise have been drawn into crime, gangs, and drug abuse.

Instead of accepting the $50,000 award that comes with the Glenn Gould Prize, Abreu chose to turn it into musical instruments for his kids in Venezuela. The Glenn Gould Foundation then went to Yamaha, which turned the money into $150,000 worth of instruments. Abreu is receiving the instruments in Toronto today.

With the Simón Bolívar as its flagship, El Sistema has become one of the finest examples of music education admired and studied around the world. And Dudamel, who has led the orchestra since 1999, was selected by Abreu as the recipient of the $15,000 City of Toronto Glenn Gould Protégé Prize.

The young conductor recently began his much-hyped tenure as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Last night, before he and the orchestra even played one note, Dudamel was greeted zealously by Toronto's music and Latino communities, some brought with them large Venezuelan flags.

The Simón Bolívar treated a near full house to a program of Latin-American works and Tchaickovsky's Symphony No. 4, Op. 36 in F minor. It was clear within the first couple minutes of their playing why this orchestra has won audiences of all kinds wherever they go.

Whether it's the seductive Silvestre Revueltas' Sensemaya, the monstrous Tchaikovsky, or the saucy Mambo from Bernstein's West Side Story (one of two encores), the players — ages 12-26 — followed the lead of their maestro and were in synch with Dudamel's every signal, be it as minute as a jerk of a shoulder in the pizzicato movement of the Tchaikovsky.

Every musician, regardless where they are seated, played their instrument as if hugging and dancing with it. The orchestra swayed musically in a sea of wave accented by their spotlighted white cuffs. 

Dudamel, who conducted the entire program from memory, was an exciting wild thing to watch. A wrist toss here, a hand punch there — never did a conductor's back look so intriguing from the back of a hall.

The audience erupted into a roaring standing ovation before the last note was finished. After two encores, they wanted more. The applause went on for about 10 minutes, with people shouting "bravo" and "encore" from Ring 4 and 5.

The night ended with Dudamel hand-signing he's hungry and tired and the musicians waving their instruments good-bye on stage. The audience was left mumbling "bravo" all the more on their way out.

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