Under Gustavo Dudamel's steadfast leadership the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela has risen to become one of the world's most compelling and in-demand ensembles. The repertoire, two of Stravinsky's most electrifying scores, chosen for the opening of their Soutbank Centre residency promised to be a thrilling combination.

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela © Nohely Oliveros
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
© Nohely Oliveros

Whilst it was The Firebird that first brought Stravinsky success and fame in Paris, it still betrayed considerable influences both from contemporaneous French music and, to a greater degree, Rimsky-Korsakov. Petrushka, the second of Stravinsky's collaborations with Diaghilev, followed a year later, in 1911, as is often said to be the first piece where “Stravinsky became Stravinsky”. The influence of Russian folk music remains, but the orchestral colouring and tonal language departs considerably from the lush romanticism of the great Russian composers of the late-19th century.

Dudamel chose to perform the 1947 version of Petrushka, with mixed results. This version reduces the orchestration from the original. However, this was slightly lost in translation as the work was still performed by a very large ensemble. This threw the balance at times, strings dominating when it is so often the woodwinds that allow Stravinsky's idiosyncratic orchestration to shine, adding an unwanted lushness to the grotesque fairground scenes. On an individual level the playing was of a high standard, but the performance as a whole lacked narrative character. As a result, the mysterious, quiet ending lacked atmosphere. 

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel © Nohely Oliveros
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel
© Nohely Oliveros

After an anti-climatic first half, what better work than The Rite of Spring to galvanise an audience. I have always felt that the opening basson solo in this piece must be one of the most nerve-wracking orchestral solos in the repertoire, the combination of its familiarity along with its starkness. I was impressed by what was an unusually characterful interpretation with a daring amount of rubato considering the extreme rhythmic challenges posed by this piece. The interpretation was definitely more successful than Petrushka and there were some exhilarating moments. The Augurs of Spring was both menacing and intense, and a sense of direction was achieved as Dudamel glided through the Ritual of Abduction and Spring Rounds towards a furious conclusion to Part One.

The performance was lacking in the quieter, mysterious passages, particularly the opening of the Part Two. The tension dipped, and the sense of menace that should have prevailed throughout became a little insipid. The Sacrifical Dance was taken at a faster-than-average tempo which worked due to the dexterity and skill of the players. In keeping with the erratic feel of the performance, Dudamel employed a very audacious pause before the final beat, playing with the audience's expectations. This would have felt more justified if the entire performance had been more assured. 

The passion that emanates from Dudamel and his players is still incredibly compelling. Two encores demonstrated why this orchestra and conductor remain a special asset to the industry. Firstly, a majestic rendition of the finale from The Firebird and secondly, Aires de Venezuela, a homage to their home country, during which a maraca-wielding percussionist weaved his way through the string section, reminding me of their electrifying debut Proms performance which brought them to a wider audience in a country which has clearly taken them to their hearts.