It was a cold winter evening in Montevideo and many of the ladies attending the concert at Auditorio Nacional del Sodre sashayed down the aisle wearing full-length mink coats. The fur and diamond sector of the audience contrasted the casually dressed President Pepe Mujica and his wife Lucia Topolansky who took their places in the balcony a full 20 minutes late. The musicians of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela filed onto the stage, tuned their instruments and waited for the entrance of Gustavo Dudamel, the celebrated young conductor listed by Time Magazine in 2009 as one of the most influential talents in the arts.
Their sound is exceptionally rich, sensitive and dynamic. The orchestra plays with gusto and obvious joy.
Dudamel's style of conducting is surprisingly understated, maintaining full control of the orchestra without flailing, bouncing, or dramatic head-shaking, and without looking at a score. One has the feeling that a slight inclination of his baby finger is enough to command the tempo and volume of an entire section. He is also reluctant to hog the limelight when applause thunders through the auditorium. Instead of bowing from the podium, Dudamel stands in the midst of the orchestra, shoulder-to-shoulder with the hard-working musicians, a gesture which says " I am but a cog in this creative machine."
Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the Orquesta Juvenil Simon Bolivar in Venezuela. Abreu established "El Sistema" an educational program which uses classical music training as an engine for intellectual and social improvement. Many of the current professional orchestra members are graduates of the system, which has effectively lifted them from situations of poverty. "El Sistema" is being used as a model for developing music programs in many countries around the world, including Canada.
The enthusiastic response of the audience prompted two encore pieces. The grand finale was a lively samba composition and the orchestra members couldn't resist moving to the rhythm. The cellists twirled their instruments, the horns stood up and swayed, the drummers danced and yelled "Bravo!" in unison. It was the perfect whimsical end to a resounding, memorable musical performance.
Footnote: President Mujica and his wife left the auditorium at the interval. They missed the best part of the performance.