Time for a bit of culture.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela are extraordinary.
Named after the man who was instrumental in the creation of sovereign states in South America in the 1800’s, the Orchestra has played a remarkable role in addressing poverty in Venezuela, a place where over half the population live below the poverty line. Via the Sistema, free instruments and tuition is provided through a network of after-school centres all over the country. It has kept thousands of children away from the drugs, alcohol and gang-related violence of the streets. There are now thirty professional orchestras in a country as opposed to the two that existed before the initiative.
The Orchestra came to prominence in the UK at the Proms in 2007, where they stole the show with an encore of Gershwin’s “Mambo”. Here’s an extraordinary version from a New Year’s Eve concert in Caracas. It must have been an incredible to experience this in the flesh. I’ve literally never seen anything like it in a classical music concert anywhere in the world.
Dudamel has been the Orchestra’s artistic director in 1999 at the callow age of 18 and has the led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra since 2005. He’s still only 34!
We saw them play Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony” in 2012 at the Royal Festival Hall. They encored with Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod”. There was not a dry eye in the house. Here’s the actual performance from that evening.
When we saw that Dudamel was returning, we booked tickets. It’s been a long twelve month wait for the concert to roll around.
The first that I knew of Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring” was when Siouxsie and The Banshees used it as walk on music prior to “Israel” on their “Nocturne” live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall.
Stravinsky was at the apex of hipness in Paris around the time of World War I. He was hanging out with Proust amongst others and that cheery bastard Ezra Pound said of him:
Stravinsky is the only living musician from whom I can learn my own job
He was starting from a winning position. From 1891 onwards when French ships sailed into the Russian naval base at Fromstadt to be greeted by a chorus of “La Marseillaise”, there had been a special bond between Russia and France. The Russian impresario, Diaghilev, retreated to Paris when he fell out with Tsar Alexander III. There was already a relationship between Russian and French music with Debussy visiting Russia to teach in 1881 and Ravel taking inspiration from Rimsky-Korsakov.
Stravinsky headed out to Paris and, with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, wowed the French with “The Firebird” in 1910. After the success of “Petrushka”, one night in 1910 Igor dreamed of a young girl dancing herself to death (as you do). He began to plan The Rite of Spring, plotting out a sequence of historically accurate springtime rituals from folk lore and song. He piled these pieces up, short sections one after the other with much rhythmic angularity. In Alex Ross’s brilliant “The Rest Is Noise” book, he compares it with Bo Diddley’s jungle beat. When Charlie “Bird” Parker hit Paris in 1949, he worked the first few notes of the Rite into his solo on “Salt Peanuts.” A few years later, Bird spotted Stravinsky in Birdland in New York and worked the “Firebird” riff into his song “Koko”. Unwittingly or otherwise Stravinsky had hit a connection with black American jazz musicians.
It seems that the legendary chaos around the ballet premiere of “Rites” has grown in notoriety. It has attained the reputation as a near riot, similar to that when the Jesus and Mary Chain played the North London Polytechnic. There was a ruckus and people were ejected but the band played on. Some critics were shocked, others thrilled.
It didn’t stop Stravinsky though and he cracked on with ripping up the rule book.
If anyone fancies a fun dramatisation of the era, this is a recent BBC4 documentary that’s worth a look:
So to the gig.
The Orchestra were a mixture of experienced and youthful musicians. The violinist who was sat opposite us was probably still looking forward to being able to vote.
The first half of the concert was a performance of “Petrushka”. This was Stravinsky’s score for a ballet about a winter fair and puppets dying. The opening section which describes the fair was absolutely beautiful, really evocative of a cold icy day in Russia. The next sections where the puppets spiral to their demise brings a sense of peril. In fact, what increasingly became evident in “Petrushka” and “Rites Of Spring” was just how well Stravinsky did “impending doom”. It really was Hitchcock like at times and the Russian obviously influenced Bernard Hermann in the music for “Vertigo” and “Psycho” amongst others and John Williams in his score for “Jaws”. Soundtrack composers owe Stravinsky a huge debt of gratitude.
The sheer physicality of the Orchestra was evident. There is little to compare to hearing a large orchestra in full flow. The power is incredible, it hits you in your solar plexus. This was incredibly true of “Rites Of Spring” which is verging on heavy metal at times, particularly rhythmically. The massed string section on both sides of the stage panned across in a wonderful stereophonic sweep.
Dudamel and the Orchestra brought the house down. He even conducted the applause so that each section and the key soloists got their place in the sun, taking individual plaudits. The encores were both contrasting and memorable.
First up was the final section of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite”. This was slow, languorous and beautiful – a real tearjerker. The final encore was “Aires De Venezuela” by Pedro Elias Gutierrez. This was a complete contrast again. The two main pieces of the evening involved huge percussion sessions, bombs going off here, there and everywhere. This encore was completely different. It was a piece of traditional music and the percussion was simply a young lad walking through the Orchestra with a pair of maracas. The South American rhythms contrasted with the juddering juggernauts that had gone before.
I’ve seen a couple of reviews since the gig suggesting that there was a lack of control and focus for “Petrushka” in particular. I didn’t hear this and in event, I probably am not sufficiently aware of the nuances of classical music to pick this up. What I did take from the concert was how happy the musicians are. We went for a cup of coffee afterwards and saw them leaving the venue in groups of twos and threes heading into the London night. They just looked like they were having the best time ever.
To finish off, here’s that Siouxsie clip. We saw them at Birmingham Odeon not long afterwards, but that’s another story for another day.