The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra knows how to play Tchaikovsky. "It's part of our music education," says orchestra director Gustavo Dudamel, "just as when you learn the violin, you have to play Carl Flesch scales." This all-Tchaikovsky performance had looked a foregone conclusion: by most accounts, extrovert passion typifies the Bolívars' style as much as it does Tchaikovsky's music. How could we have expected anything other than a heart-on-sleeve account from this orchestra-composer combination?

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel

But this was not the performance we had expected. The SBSO has outgrown the youth orchestra classification, and it now possesses a discernible maturity. There is searching introspection to its sound, in sharp contrast to the full-throttle bravado of the younger El Sistema orchestras that have graced the stage of La Scala in recent weeks. Their approach bore mixed results. Two of Tchaikovsky's symphonic poems fell short of inspiring, whilst the Pathétique Symphony had devastating intensity. 

Tchaikovsky's The Tempest distills the broad spread of Shakespeare's play into a 20-minute episodic structure. The seams showed in a performance that lacked cogency. Dudamel conducted without a score here (as with the rest of the programme), and strived for daring stillness in an evocation of Prospero's sea where basses lacked power and horns leaked feebly. More abandon was required for winds' dainty Ariel, whilst the ensuing storm only partially brewed. There was effective playing for Caliban's muscular lunges, violinists working so hard that one player stationed on the first deck pushed his instrument out of tune before and had to swap it with a colleague behind. But when musicians searched too vehemently for that magic sound, the quieter sections failed to kindle. 

The Tempest's love theme takes inspiration from that in the composer's earlier symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet. The orchestra re-adopted its controlled style in a performance of that work, and whilst their playing never quite thrilled, the merits of their approach could now be glimpsed. Cyclical incantations of the Friar Laurence theme took on a hypnotic quality, starting out delicately and becoming gradually more potent. Sensitive playing saw propulsion come from within, so that the Montagues and Capulets' warring theme ignited only with the entry of lashing timpani and cymbals. The love theme waxed and waned, and the flute solo was especially beautiful.

This was self-sustaining playing where the orchestra fed on its own spontaneous energy. The energy found a new flow as we plunged the depths of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no.6 in B minor. "It's all about Life", said the composer of a work more often associated with his death. A deathly opening sparked instrumentalists to new life, from a putrid bassoon to menacing flutes. With finer raw materials at hand, the conductor now carved bolder shapes, working inflections into the romantic theme and breathing life into violins' rests as they sneered at trombones in the Allegro vivo episode. That episode builds in raging brass before tipping beyond breaking point in wailing strings. Dudamel seemed to reach into the sound and turn it inside out, revealing a seething underbelly in waves of jaw-dropping intensity.

The orchestra steered itself in the second movement's lilting five-in-a-bar waltz whilst Dudamel's freed-up hands picked out detail. The third movement's march became his laboratory, and a whiff of experimentation electrified the air. He would sweep up a singular line and take it on a journey, his head of curls quivering with excitement, and he ceased to beat entirely at one point, no one sure what would happen next. When he re-entered the fray, Dudamel possessed redoubled vigour. It was impossible to take your eyes of this impish display.

Collective understanding reached its apogee in the final movement. So deep was Dudamel's introspection that he had quite possibly forgotten that the audience was there. Players tightened and slackened to his slightest gestures. Romantic gushes concluded in a death rattle of guttural strings. As the sound expired, Dudamel slowly retracted his hands. They continued to furl even after the final cellos and basses had breathed their last. The process lasted an age. There was not a rustle in the audience.