A major event took place at Carnegie Hall last night, and the music world turned out in force, filling Stern Hall to capacity. Every New York critic was in the house, along with Zarin Mehta and Glenn Dicterow from the New York Philharmonic, Frank Solomon from the Marlboro Festival and Peoples' Symphony Concerts, singers Placido Domingo, Thomas Quasthoff and Barbara Cook, pianist Emanuel Ax, etc. etc. And, thanks to Carnegie Hall's generous Club 57th and 7th program, I had the best seat of all: 18th row, dead center, for a mere $33. (Sadly, after yesterday's birthday, this will be the last year I qualify for the program.) Carnegie even added special lighting for the occasion, making the wall sconces shimmer like a golden temple - no doubt for the benefit of the PBS cameras, which taped the concert for an upcoming Great Performances telecast on January 7.
You would be forgiven for thinking all this hoopla was for the Berlin Philharmonic, but a quick check of the program revealed they weren't scheduled to take the stage until Tuesday night. No, this was the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela: an amateur group of music students. Which begged the question: could a youth orchestra, with members as young as fifteen (and none older than 25), possibly live up to all this hype? Would Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra's 26-year old Music Director, cave under the bright lights of the most celebrated stage in America, if not the world?
Dudamel seemed to answer that question by bounding out from the wings, mop of hair flying, leaping onto the podium in front of his 200+ players. The Bolívar Youth Orchestra, as you may have heard by now, is no ordinary student band, but perhaps the world's greatest youth orchestra, the product of a 30-year national music education program known as El Sistema that receives regular mentoring from organizations like the Berlin Philharmonic and its Music Director, Sir Simon Rattle. (Rattle has called El Sistema: "the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world.") And Dudamel is already well into his international career, having conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Chicago Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which he becomes Music Director in 2009. (He makes his debut with the New York Philharmonic at the end of the month.)
After greeting the generous ovation, Dudamel turned and calmly began to conduct Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra - a challenge for even the most professional orchestras. Contrary to his fiery reputation, Dudamel - who conducted from memory - drew out long, extended phrasing from his players, slowly building a sense of drama that laid the foundation for the final Presto: a convulsive explosion that includes one of the greatest - and most nerve-wracking - fanfares in music. Having heard the Concerto for Orchestra on a number of prior occasions - most recently this past summer at Tanglewood - I thought it was a very strong performance, and nearly-miraculous given the age of the performers. The crowd went absolutely bonkers; Dudamel did a clasp high-five with his friend, Concertmaster Alejandro Carreno, then went around hugging numerous other players while the unanimous standing-O continued.
I was less familiar with the work on the second half of the program: Shostakovich's 10th Symphony, written in 1953. Which was apparently also true of Dudamel, as he opted to hand his baton over to probably the world's greatest pinch hitter: Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle was himself a prodigy, taking over the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when he was only 25, and has become a close mentor to Dudamel, who watched from a box seat.
The 10th is a big, sprawling symphony, starting with a 20 minute slow movement that gives way to a jackhammer Allegro that literally had the players leaping out of their seats and the bassists swaying back and forth. Immediately, you could tell this was a whole new of playing: energetic, unrestrained, yet never out-of-control. After that movement, Rattle nodded his head in approval, then opted to retune the orchestra before starting the brooding Allegretto, helping to settle down the potentially-overheated musicians. As a whole, Rattle seemed to get a slightly more exacting - if less manic - performance from the orchestra. The symphony concluded with a fireburst Allegro that threatened to shake the paint off the walls.
After several ecstatic curtain calls, Rattle consulted with Carreno, then told us that they wanted to play Bernstein's "Mambo" from West Side Story, but several players were missing parts. "We'll just have them make something up," he said, confident of their ability to do just that. Not only did they play it flawlessly, they leapt out of their seats, twirled their instruments - even tossed them up in the air. Now, that's what I call fun.
After, I ran into my friend Bruce in the back, who made the claim that this had been, "a historic evening." The next 20 years will be the ultimate judge of that, but clearly we were witness to an orchestra of remarkable capabilities, with a conductor who is a force to be reckoned with. There is something exciting happening south of the border, and I can't imagine anyone in that hall feeling anything but hopeful for the future of music.