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The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra does Tchaikovsky

After working on Mahler and Beethoven, Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela are exploring Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Francseca da Rimini. “Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5; Francesca da Remini” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2009) is particularly excellent because it does not suffer from the usual inconsistency of interpretation that often happens when young players are involved. This release has accuracy, passion, and unity.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela got its start when Jose Abreu, an economist and musician in the country founded El Sistema (otherwise known as the National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela) in 1975. The program was established to provide opportunities to children from poor families to learn classical music in a systematic way.

Currently, 220 youth orchestras exist throughout the country. The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra represents the best players of the program, and Dudamel has been its music director since 1999. The triumphs of El Sistema have inspired Scotland to adopt a similar program.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony on this latest CD is of particular interest.  The clarinet injection is slow, but melodic. This opening made the start sound romantic, rather than the beginning of a tragic piece of music. While other recordings, such as the one by Pappano with Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, place more emphasis on structural balance, Dudamel brings a radically different approach , providing an alternative way of listening to the music and reassessing the role of the clarinet in setting up the atmosphere.

In the second movement, thanks to the excellent recording quality, the low-key strings are easily heard. While the clarinet still plays an important rolecontinuing from the first movement, the horn perfects the movement through intercepting it at the right time. The horn solo is excellent and the soloist illustrates tremendous ability, despite a young age.

The third movement relies particularly on teamwork. The harmonious relationship heard here testifies to the lack of “ego struggle” that can sometimes affect popular orchestras. “Ego struggle” results in members of different sections trying to outperform each other, thus only focusing on their own parts and making the overall sound suffer. Thankfully, this is not the case here.

For the fast fourth movement, the orchestra truly reveals its advatnage: passion and teamwork. The strings perform with accuracy and speed, symbolizing the final victory parade.

A lesser-known Tchaikovsky work, Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, is also featured on the CD. This symphonic poem was written in the autumn of 1876, during the time the composer spent in Bayreuth, which is known for its annual Wagner’s festival. The work was based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and concerns an unhappily married woman and her lover, who were condemned to hell for their immoral love.

The cellos here completely re-create the environment of hell, mirroring abandoned hope. Equally superb is the clarinet, which supplies the motion. The whole orchestra then comes together to master the messy, fast rhythm, illustrating the final judgment of the poor couple.

This CD is another important step for the orchestra, and equally important is the hope that there will be another Jose Abreu, someone who is willing to offer opportunities to talented children from different social backgrounds. The world needs more Simon Bolivar Yourth Orchestras.

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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.