- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

In what may very well have been Washington's most viscerally exciting classical music event this season, the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela rocked the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall on Monday evening, thrilling the near-capacity audience. Consisting of roughly 180 young high school through college-age musicians - many from below the poverty line - the orchestra was founded by Jose Abreu and other artists in the mid-1970s to develop “a cultural showcase of Venezuela B.C. (Before Chavez),” as Time.com writer Tim Padgett wittily observed. While the “Simon Bolivar” moniker seems to have been added recently, Monday's program was propaganda free.

The program, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra's maestro for the past decade, was designed to dazzle. It consisted of two popular classical showstoppers - Maurice Ravel's “Daphnis and Chloe” Suite No. 2 and the orchestral version of Igor Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring - along with a contemporary Venezuelan composition, Evencio Castellanos' “Santa Cruz de Pacairigua.”

The upside of such an ambitious program is that it's exciting. The downside is that this stuff is devilishly hard to play.

Fortunately, these young Venezuelans are remarkable musicians whose pure skills and technique are of the highest professional quality. Sure, there were a few youthful indiscretions, most notably some uncertain tempos in the early moments of the Ravel and occasionally in the second half of the Stravinsky. But frankly, I've heard worse glitches in professional orchestras.

The quality of the orchestra's first-chair talent was equally amazing. Most notable were the opening notes of the solo bassoonist in the Stravinsky and the astounding virtuosity of the young flutist who brilliantly navigated the Ravel's fiendish flute challenges.

If the Ravel was exciting, the Castellanos was more so. Essentially a multipart tone poem, “Santa Cruz” musically narrates the devil's attempt to take over the neighborhood church. He's thwarted by the faithful, who celebrate their victory in a raucously Latino style. The players let out all the stops for this musical party.

The evening concluded with a hair-raisingly authentic performance of “The Rite of Spring,” infused with the enthusiasm that only a troupe of young players could muster.

The audience demanded encores and got two of them - after the young players donned warm-up jackets in their country's national colors. Works included Alberto Ginastera's irresistible finale from his ballet “Estancia,” and the “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein's “West Side Story” punctuated by instrument twirling high school band high jinks.

After all this musical razzle-dazzle, why are we not surprised that, at age 28, Mr. Dudamel will head to the West Coast this fall to become the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new music director?

★★★★

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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