The 20th anniversary of the Great Interpreters Series, hosted by the Scherzo Foundation, could not go unnoticed. A central actor in the Spanish classical music scene, over the years Scherzo has brought to the stage of the Auditorio Nacional internationally established pianists and rising stars alike. Yet there were no keyboard masters in this commemorative evening – how to single out one among so many? Rather, the audience was treated to the full force of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra and its principal conductor, Gustavo Dudamel.

Gustavo Dudamel © Richard Reinsdorf
Gustavo Dudamel
© Richard Reinsdorf

True to its reputation, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra delivered, under Dudamel’s baton, an explosion of vitality and presence. There is neither past nor future for these musicians: all that exists is the note – or torrents of them – that they play at every minute. Existence happens there and then.

The programme was sure to please an audience craving an oxytocin rush. The opening piece, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – that monolithic sculpture built from the most popular of motives – already did the trick. There was certainly much to be enjoyed and admired, in particular a sense of deep unity within the orchestra and between them and Dudamel. Music just poured out of them all, and they thrived on the contrasts that Beethoven so majestically conceived. The first movement was formidable in thrust and was played at a lively tempo. The violas and cellos did a good work in introducing the first theme that opens the second movement, leading the way for the rich variations that followed. The scherzo gave one of many chances to admire the brass and woodwind sections, both truly remarkable. The Allegro was again pacy and bright, joy following sorrow.

The biggest challenge the orchestra faced was a self-imposed one, namely its supersized nature. While they were able to produce the most imposing of sounds, and in fact managed to remain remarkably delicate where needed, some of the nuances of the score were inevitably dwarfed. There isn’t always safety in numbers and, for all its power, Beethoven’s Fifth is a delicate work where subtleties emerge better in a smaller ensemble. Beethoven might have bridged Classicism into Romanticism, but the Fifth, written between 1804 and 1808, still sits more firmly in the former than the orchestra made it sound.

An even larger ensemble awaited as the Simón Bolívar grew even further in the second half, to the point where it became pretty cramped on stage. Far from being intimidated, Dudamel led the musicians as they sailed through some of Wagner’s best-known symphonic excerpts from the Ring cycle. Of particular intensity was the Funeral March of Götterdämmerung, solemn and haunting, while Siegfried’s “Forest Murmurs” were inspiring and evocative. Overall, and somewhat surprisingly, the orchestra seemed more at ease – and more suited to – Wagner than Beethoven. Bringing the programme to a close with “The Ride of the Valkyries” ensured an overjoyed ovation.

The encore claimed by the audience came in the form of Tristan und Isolde’s “Liebestod”, which turned out to be the best moment of the evening: music that defies description played with moving depth. It brought memories of a recent interview in which Dudamel said conducting Wagner operas is on his to-do list. If he approaches it as he did the “Liebestod”, he could be up to something really worth paying attention to.

The second encore threw the audience into ecstasy, as the orchestra put its full weight behind Alma Llanera, a popular Venezuelan song that has earned itself a pseudo-national hymn status. With an astonishing soloist appearing from one side and causing something not far from a maraca-mania – no fainting reported officially but it came pretty close to it – every one of the people filling the hall left with happiness written all over their faces. Not a minor accomplishment.