Access to music for all has been the cornerstone of Gustavo Dudamel’s philanthropic principles, an inclusive support for young musicians that perhaps also encourages the performance of music by relatively unfamiliar composers such as the Cuban composer Julián Orbón with which the concert began.

Gustavo Dudamel © Richard Reinsdorf
Gustavo Dudamel
© Richard Reinsdorf

This was Tres versiones sinfónicas, a three-part affair from 1953, and the composer’s first major orchestral work written, according to the programme note contributor, in a “bracingly adventurous style”. It was soon apparent that these Three Symphonic Versions were neither bracing nor particularly adventurous. That said, the players made the most of the rhythms of the outer movements (Pavane and moto perpetuo) and the limited material of the medieval techniques underpinning the central Organum-Conductus movement. It was clear too, that Aaron Copland was an influential presence in the work’s harmonic idiom, albeit Copland with a foreign accent, but there was little to demonstrate in these orchestral tributes that Orbón had forged a distinct musical personality of his own. Despite the enthusiastic advocacy of Dudamel and his players the 20-minute work seemed long on energy and short on ideas.

By contrast, Mahler’s Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor teems with ideas, its 70 or so minutes still making huge emotional and musical demands on players and listeners alike just over a hundred years after the composer premiered it in October 1904. It is now a decade since Dudamel first gained acclaim with this symphony when he won first prize after conducting it at the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004. Clearly the music has become part of his mental furniture, as conducting without a score indicated: he also appeared to make light of the symphony’s technical demands, with its myriad tempo fluctuations and mood changes, as did the 100 plus well-drilled players at his disposal.

The string playing was superbly disciplined and at various times, such as the concluding section of the opening first movement (initiated by the timpanist), Dudamel drew some wonderfully polished sounds that were gossamer light. Equally polished was the string tone in the slow central panel of the second movement, but too often the 80 or so players threatened to overpower the woodwind and brass and obscure some of the contrapuntal detail given to them. When required, however, the lower strings (anchored by 12 double basses) were able to deliver brute force as they did magnificently at the start of the second movement as well as giving virile support to the chorale theme heard in the brass towards the end of the movement.

It was in the central Scherzo (begun with a superb horn soloist) that Dudamel seemed to convey most successfully Mahler’s intentions in a reading that underlined both the movement’s schizophrenic quality and Viennese character. By turns its waltz figures alarmed and sparkled, their opposite emotional worlds effortlessly controlled by Dudamel with a seemingly limitless range of perfectly-judged gestures. There was light and shade in abundance.

Lasting just over ten minutes, the Adagietto might have been more memorable if the string numbers had either been reduced or the collective tone more tenderly honed. It was neither metallic nor melt-in-the-mouth, but at least the phrasing went some way to transport us to a “haven of recuperation from life’s turmoil” as Deryck Cooke once described this movement.

The strings notably demonstrated their efficiency in the fugato passages of the concluding Rondo finale in a workout that also showed that Dudamel’s outsized orchestra can perform like a well-oiled machine and create exhilaration in spades. It is for this wow factor that the crowds still flock to hear the Venezuelan maestro and his committed players.

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