Everything you’ve heard about the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is true. The orchestra is huge and loud, the players young, enthusiastic and have talent to burn. They put on a unique kind of show, and the sheer vitality of their performances, combined with their global fame, is sure to attract new audiences to orchestral music. But the downside is a decidedly idiosyncratic approach to the core repertoire, not distorted so much as subsumed into the Simón Bolívar sound.

Gustavo Dudamel © Mark Hanauer
Gustavo Dudamel
© Mark Hanauer

Beethoven's Fifth is an interesting choice, a work that has the monolithic authority to withstand all sorts of performance innovations. In a minor concession to Classical restraint, the orchestral forces were reduced, although even then they seemed to almost fill the Festival Hall stage. Gustavo Dudamel pulled off an impressive feat in presenting the symphony at brisk tempos despite the size of his orchestra and the generally Romantic approach to phrasing and tone. The strings don’t have a particularly warm sound, it’s more husky and biting, though not unpleasant. Balance is impressive given the sheer numbers, and although the violins often bury the counterpoint in the lower strings, the relationships between the wind and string sections were always finely judged.

There was much elegance here: elegance rather than sensitivity. Dudamel seems to have two approaches; he is either letting the music play itself, returning a sense of Classical order simply through his lack of intervention, or he is pulling around the tempos and driving home the accents. It is those moments that let this performance down. For instance at the tutti at the end of the first movement development, over the course of about two bars he brought the music to almost a complete halt, the better to emphasise what was to come. Some music responds well to this treatment, but Beethoven struggles.

Perhaps Wagner then? These orchestral excerpts from the Ring were better suited to the Dudamel/Simón Bolívar approach. The orchestra was expanded for the second half to a scale that could only be estimated by police helicopter. Again, Dudamel showed an impressive ability to marshal his huge forces, and although the large instrumental sections occasionally suffered poor internal tuning, the balance between them was always finely judged. His approach to most of this music was to take it slow and stately, relying on the sheer volume of the orchestra to create drama and energy. Energy is never in short supply with this group, and although the gods seemed to saunter into Valhalla, there was never any question they were going to get there, nor of the significance of the occasion. But as in the Beethoven, Dudamel insisted on highlighting every detail of the score, every hairpin and accent, and there are far more of both here. So, in “Siegfried’s Funeral Music”, the brass chords were spat out, and the string swells between were emphasised to the point of parody. Occasionally the orchestra’s refinement shone through, as in the very elegant “Forest Murmurs”, which was a highlight. And for an encore we got Isolde’s “Liebestod”, a performance characterised by impressive warmth and intensity.

There was much great music making this evening. That trademark zest of the Simón Bolívar players counts for a lot, and their enthusiasm is contagious. It’s an impressively skilled ensemble, deserving of its worldwide status as much for its traditional musical values as its distinctive personality. But for all its good points, the performance was repeatedly grounded by moments of crass exaggeration and punctuated by wearying episodes of outright bombast.