The music of Venezuela is deep-rooted in folk traditions of its llanos and has, in our time, begun to carve out its place in the history of modern orchestral music. Maestro Gustavo Dudamel and the musicians of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra are undoubtedly the most prominent ambassadors for Venezuelan orchestral music today, and they hit the stage on Friday for their second night at Carnegie Hall’s opening weekend. Dudamel and the Bolívars have a habit of knocking everyone’s socks off, so it was expected that they would deliver at least a solid sock and three-quarters. However, while the orchestra played no less than high-caliber, the musical growth and maturity of its members since their debut at the Proms in 2007 has caused them to evolve into a “socks-on” kind of ensemble.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela © Chris Lee
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
© Chris Lee

The first two compositions on the program were commissioned by the Bolívars to commemorate the artistry of folk singer Simón Díaz, whose melodies of the llanos are alive today in the minds of the Venezuelan people. Tonadas de Simón Díaz by Juan Carlos Núñez was written in 1999 as a set of tone poems that draw on Díaz’s melodies for the basis of invention. Though the poems were not intended to be profane like Ravel’s La Valse, rightfully programmed a night earlier, one can easily hear harmonic parallels as the innocent melodies tumble through whimsical distortions. Núñez reimagined Díaz’s troubadour-like nostalgia and yearning for lost love in “Mi querencia” – titled after the metaphysical Spanish concept of a locality where one feels safe – which begins chaotically and ends curiously on a doleful afterthought by a lone violin. The other selection, “Tonada del Cabestrero”, followed a similar form, instead recalling the memory of a cattle-handler. Dudamel channeled his inner bard and unraveled each narrative little by little to uncover an overall feeling of despondence.

When Díaz died in 2014, Paul Desenne memorialized his sound in Hipnosis mariposa. Basing the melody on “La cara Mariposa” (Mariposa the Cow), Desenne wove the song into a fantasy of symphonic variations with an underlying current of repetitive rhythmic motifs that bring about the counter-idea of stasis. Desenne’s orchestration is at times hefty, and the balance could have been minutely adjusted, especially in the wind section whose players did not always project clearly in the hall. Nevertheless, the end of the Hipnosis was an especially beautiful moment when the orchestral guttiness slackened and Díaz’s voice soared through the wind section like meteors falling to Earth before fading as the violins strummed the final chord of Díaz’s guitar.

Over half a century before Núñez and Desenne, Heitor Villa-Lobos was delving into folk music of Brazil to find inspiration for his own creations. Bachianas brasileiras no. 2 (of 9) was written in 1930, after years rubbing elbows with the 20th-century Parisian elite, and gained Villa-Lobos notable popularity through of his novel use of Brazilian rhythms and jazz on the symphonic scale. Saxophonist David Medina played devilishly evocative solos throughout the work and effectively conjured the spirit of Amazonian industrialization. The Bolívars pulled off a perfectly fine rendition of the piece, and it served as an appropriate bridge to the modern masterwork that followed.

Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, famous for being a titan in the repertoire because it flexes orchestral muscle, capped off the evening. Dudamel and the Bolívars exhibited everything you could ask for in Stravinsky – cleverness, luster, satire, sparkle – and the unity among all sections of the orchestra shone through under Dudamel's confident and comforting leadership. The first and second trumpet players deserve the highest praise for their performance as they pulled off the Ballerina’s solo symmetry of trapeze artists; I only wish I could publicly congratulate them by name, but (un)fortunately, the orchestra boasts a jaw-dropping 17(!) member trumpet section.

Inevitably, the crowd went wild for the Bolívars, and they encored twice: first with the finale of Firebird, and second with one of their greatest hits, Pedro Gutierrez’s Alma Llanera, which is after all Venezuela’s unofficial himno nacional y concerto virtuosismo para maracas.

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