Glitz, glamour and football atmosphere / Prom 29: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra + Gustavo Dudamel / Royal Albert Hall – 05 August 2011

6 Aug


Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’
Miah Persson soprano
Anna Larsson mezzo-soprano
National Youth Choir of Great Britain
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel conductor

To see the Bolívars in action for the first time is to witness a new type of orchestra but also a different type of audience. The Royal Albert Hall was shearing with warmth from the audience and the intensity of the players. Surely miles away from the civil service ethos of the BBC Symphony Orchestra that provides the fillers between visiting orchestras to the Proms.

In many ways the theatricality (and if you ask me, Mahler’s vulgar use of percussion) was a good fit for the fire that burns in the belly of this young orchestra and its elite line up. Possibly reading elite sounds strange in the context, but the members are selected through a national ongoing national programme in Venezuela that involves 250.000 members (FESNOJIV). Making the line up must be an arduous process but one that galvanises the young performers to grow and perform their way to international stardom.

This was the one Prom that sold out in minutes as music lovers and frequent Prommers felt the need to be baptised in the holy musical water that seems to be the reputation of the Bolívars, indeed it seems that people queued outside for 22 hours in the hope to nab a close enough pitch to the front of the arena. As an ex employee of the RAH, two things we cannot underestimate is the love of the Prommers for music and the auditorium’s capacity to flatten it with its warehouse like resonant acoustic. Tonight the Prommers screamed out their love for the orchestra with the kind of intensity one would witness at a pop concert or a football match…think rapturous applause for Simon Rattle and multiply by ten.

Now how was the Mahler, you’d ask. And if you have been reading this blog or following me on Twitter you will know my feelings of cool detachment and cold sweat that normally take me over. Symphony No2 has a lot of elements that I have disliked, the overblown over mannered throw in the sink writing is really not in my taste. And it is a hard old slog to live through 90 minutes of an exaggerated, intellectualised suffering and redemption Mahler-style. The kind of demonstrative look at me anguish and joy that I grew up to disregard as a central European trait that I had very little time for. I am afraid I have to say once more Mahler failed to move me on the whole, despite the admittedly sensitive vocal writing and intricacy of the orchestration. It just feels the kind of work that is there to display to everyone what a great composer you are but doesn’t know how to be economical within its own limits.

The opening three movements were beaming with glistening string playing that brought out the drama and the artifice to the fore. Dudamel’s concentration and conducting from memory was impressively focused on communicating with the orchestra (including conducting a brass section up in the gods of the RAH’s Gallery through a video link). Unfortunately what really marred the experience was the hit and miss acoustic from H Stalls, that was at the same time reflective and very shallow, making the almost bucolic themes by woodwind and strings seem like happening next doors. And of course another annoyance is having the Loggia boxes behind the Stalls…which meant that a lovely lady behind me thought it was a good time to poor a large glass of wine during a very hushed passage…thank you madame, hope it was tasty!

And then the fourth movement came about and here come Miah in a charcoal embroidered net curtain and Anna in one of the curtains from the boxes. A few minutes in an Arena Prommer received a text message, which I would think will be his/her eternal damnation by the closely knit microcosm of the season pass holders. Dudamel’s conducting did brng out the orchestras innate sense of rhythm at the more dance derived parts of the score ( a touch of a tarantella here, a touch of a waltz there) but somehow did not feel the connection between the individual parts as close as it could have been. The strife for speed and musicality maybe took over the need for a unified structure. And here I will declare my love for the performance of Anna Larsson, whose O Roschen rot! was enchanting and beautifully judged. I can imagine a lot of singers would really go on overdrive trying to make themselves audible, she used her sizeable instrument at a very low, barely audible level and brought us to a climax of full throated delivery over the enveloping strings. It was warm and absolutely gorgeous.

The fifth movement brought us Miah’s singing which worked beautifully with the lovely phrasing of the choir but to me it seemed unexceptional. Even though she has a beautiful voice with strident colour, this time round it just didn’t transport us to the afterlife. But it was funny observing a young gentleman in the front row of the choir taking the crown from Gustavo as the biggest hair on stage, with his blonde explosion of curly hair!

I feel very privileged to have had the chance to be there this evening, despite my general misgivings on Mahler’s emotional sincerity and his overblown aesthetic that doesn’t resonate with me. A huge thanks to Guy for allowing me to pop in and listen to this incredible experimental orchestra and its charismatic leader. A heady experience that brought together buttoned up 19th century Germany and Venezuelan fire in a Victorian community Hall with the acoustics of a retail shed by the M25.

Do watch it tonight on BBC 2 (I’ll surely be recording it while being out and about in Devon) and do listen again on iPlayer and on repeat on Radio 3, Tuesday 9th at 14.00. Let me know what you thought!

3 Responses to “Glitz, glamour and football atmosphere / Prom 29: Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra + Gustavo Dudamel / Royal Albert Hall – 05 August 2011”

  1. Mark 6 August 2011 at 10:27 am #

    Thanks for your interesting blog post. I too had the privelage of being at there and at 10:20 the next day it is true to say I still have not come down.
    I am a seasoned concert goer and seasoned prommer but never have I experienced a concert like that.
    Two of the things that struck me most was the eruption of noise in the hall before the last note had faded and the whole hall on it’s feet as one at the same time.
    I think even many of the orchestra were a little taken back by the response. I personally have never seen anything like it.
    If I was to have one small critisism I would say that the stage brass did not have a very good night, a few of the harder to reach notes were fluffed but I though the off stage brass were superb. And ofcourse the National youth choir were magical.
    All in all a night I will never forget and I am ready to experience it all over again on BBC 2 tonight.

    • George aka OperaCreep 7 August 2011 at 12:00 am #

      Despite the fact I am not usually touched by Mahler’s music, last night was a very special night. The crowd went maybe a bit too crazy, but there is nothing wrong with excessive enthusiasm it goes a long way 😉 Dudamel conducting from memory was a classy touch too. It was wonderful seeing so many promising musicians sharing the limelight.
      All the old school grumblers that claim classical performance is dead should reconsider their views. The Bolivars had style and boundless energy. Sometimes that kind of inspiration goes beyond experience and teasing every single details out of a score. I am filled with confidence that their example will be a guiding light for lots of young people to consider this type of performance and give it a try. Sometime we all forget how important inspiring your audience is. It may have not been the greatest Mahler 2 ever but it was vibrant and it was inspirational.


  1. Proms ’11: Mahler II « messiaenesque - 15 August 2011

    […] mezzosoprana Anna Larsson (”înduioșătoare, umană, voce clară și pură” / ”încântător, splendid gândit”), dar eu simt că aș putea ierta toate petele vărsate pe partitura lui Mahler, mai puțin cum […]

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