Maestro Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela completed a four-day residency at Cal Performances with two concerts that rocked, rolled, and astounded audiences in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Leading up to the concerts, the residency entailed a two-day music education symposium with sessions titled “The Transformative Power of Music” and “The Possibilities for a Musical Education”, and Dudamel and his players working with teachers and students in a variety of workshops and masterclasses. It was edifying to know that the young musicians of this excellent orchestra and their charismatic leader did more than perform for us in the evenings; they spent their days in the Bay Area connecting with the community and spreading the El Sistema message that music can be a transformative force if we engage it and enable others to embrace it.

For those of us who did not get to be coached by Dudamel or interact directly with his players, it was easy enough to connect with their spirit and enthusiasm through the concerts. While the programs were far from standard concert-hall repertory in this country, the chosen compositions were played with verve and were a welcoming invitation to get acquainted with the music of a few Latin American masters. Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonia India was an excellent opener for the festivities as it displayed the orchestra’s sectional cohesion and its ability to play, when required, as a massive, united organ. Beginning with complex rhythmic exchanges, the piece developed broad, lyrical swaths of melody that culminated in a whirling climax. Dudamel’s baton movement directed the music’s protean character – precise and angular in one moment and sweeping and expressive in the next. Clearly this well-trained orchestra was dialed in completely with what Dudamel wanted and their stop-on-a-dime responsiveness was thrilling to hear.

Julián Orbón’s Tres Versiones Sinfónicas sounded very interesting from the program notes, but my first hearing of it did not meet expectations. To these virgin ears, the work seemed overwrought and unnecessarily frenetic, though the ending, a brief movement titled “Xylophone (Congo)”, was exhilarating. The highlight of the night (both nights, actually) was Silvestre Revueltas’ La Noche de Los Mayas. Revueltas’ masterpiece, originally composed for a 1939 film and converted into a symphonic suite in 1961 by José Ives Limantour, takes the listener on a musical journey through a cacophonous soundscape, a genteel Mexican folk dance, ponderous introspection, and a cathartic outpouring at its rousing close. In a program of compositions with exciting finales, the conclusion of Dudamel’s impassioned reading of La Noche de los Mayas had me swaying in my seat, feet pounding the floor and wondering how the intensity could possibly build any more. The two encores that followed, including a cutting-up good time with Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo” from West Side Story, mercifully released the tension and restored the festive mood.

The second night’s offerings kept the focus on the orchestra, but with the addition of voices – hundreds of them! For two of the three compositions the orchestra was joined on stage by the UC Berkeley Chorus and the Pacific Boychoir. The sheer number of performers was impressive to behold (what does the backstage green room look like when there are 600 musicians on the stage?) as they prepared to perform Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Choros no. 10. The forces required for the piece are comparable to Mahler’s famously gargantuan Symphony no. 8 (which the orchestra recorded in 2010), but at only fifteen minutes in length the sounds, colors, and individually articulated ideas in Choros no. 10 are necessarily crammed into a densely packed, explosive bundle compared with Mahler’s epic work. At first it was difficult to hear all of the sections of the chorus with the orchestra blowing at full strength, especially the legato lines of the sopranos and altos, but Dudamel seemed to find a way to bring the voices out without diminishing the orchestra’s intensity.

This piece was the highlight of another interesting program which opened with a dreamy, sound collage by Esteban Benzecry (b. 1970) titled Chaac (Maya Water God) and closed with Antonio Estévez’s bizarre yet enjoyable Cantata Criolla, which included committed performances by two vocal soloists, tenor Idwer Alvarez and baritone Gaspar Colón Moleiro. Like the Orbón piece from the first night, multiple hearings and greater familiarity with Estévez’s work may lead to deeper appreciation of this lengthy piece and its confusing text.

On this historic visit to energize local musical culture through education and exhilarating music making, Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela made an impact that is not likely to be soon forgotten. Their dynamic performances and commitment to the creations of Latin American composers demonstrated a valuable lesson: if you open your mind and allow yourself to feel the music, especially unfamiliar music by unfamiliar composers, you will find that musical inspiration exists everywhere.