Something's coming, and it's about to be played by 20 violas.
(Poor-quality cell phone photo by your faithful correspondent.)
The crown jewel of El Sistema rode into Boston this week on more classical music hype than the town's seen in years. The place was packed; Tony Woodcock, the new president of the New England Conservatory (a concert co-sponsor, with the BSO and the Celebrity Series), gave an effusive introduction with a record-high incidence of the adjectivally-modifying "absolutely". And then the enormous (quadruple winds, eight horns, eleven basses) orchestra started to play, and it all managed to justify the buzz.
The main attraction of the opening, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, was hearing the unwieldy hydra on stage move with such precision. Apart from the frisson of programming this Koussevitzky specialty in Koussevitzky's house, the interpretation didn't reveal anything about the piece most listeners didn't know, but the flexibility of the ensemble, given its size, was wondrous. Dudamel not only has some of the most fluent stick technique I've ever seen—every cue arrives in flawless time as part of a completely natural-seeming choreography, and his repertoire of gestures is huge and judiciously deployed—but is also a terrific conduit for the enormous amount of energy that flows through the group. The playing, uniformly joyous, is almost unbelievably exuberant and intense; in lesser hands that could result in unfocused chaos. Dudamel channels it into exact paths. The calibration of the rustling crescendo at the beginning of the finale was quite possibly the best I've ever heard.
Beethoven's Seventh Symphony opened the second half in grand style—reduced personnel in this case still meant four horns and four trumpets. Dudamel didn't keep the group on a classically-proportioned leash: the dynamic contrasts were wide and powerful, the sort of thing Mahler was aiming for when he would re-orchestrate Beethoven. But they made it convincing—even the loudest portions (which were quite loud indeed) still had a clarity and balance that let you pick out any voice or line. The pacing, particularly in a somewhat faster-than-normal true Allegretto second movement and a somewhat leisurely Presto third, seemed designed to build the structure around great, cresting waves of sound, something Dudamel excels at. Also breakneck finales: the final Allegro con brio, like the fifth movement of the Bartok, was a turbocharged sprint.
James Levine himself slipped into the first balcony to catch the orchestra's showpiece, the "Symphonic Dances" from Bernstein's West Side Story. The flashy rhythmic stuff didn't disappoint—glorious, swinging, with the economy-sized full band (two tubas? Sure, why not) displaying a tightness that a four-piece punk outfit would kill for, all the while the players seeming to have an amount of fun that could make you jealous. But the delicate portions were equally assured—the cha-cha had a perfect halting lushness, and the wash of strings that signals the tragic denouement was magical. Dudamel kept the focus on the drama, telescoped as it is, which effectively raised the stakes for the less-extroverted parts of the score, keeping each note alive.
Encores brought out the Venezuelan flag jackets, which seem to attract uncomfortable comment wherever they appear, on account of the current Venezuelan administration. Pre-Beethoven civic ceremony—honoring, for the most part, José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema's founder, who was in attendance—glossed over the political situation in Venezuela while reminding you that it was there, but one got the impression that the orchestra and the program are regarded as a national treasure regardless of political persuasion; even the presumably anti-Chavez ex-pats seated near us, who heartily booed the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, readily and enthusiatically joined in the standing ovations Abreu received seemingly each time his name was mentioned. El Sistema, it's worth remembering, pre-dates Chavez's "Bolivarian Republic" by many years, and if the level of support at Wednesday's concert—audience and institutional—is any indication, it should survive whatever twists and turns are in Venezuela's political future. Levine was waiting backstage to greet Dudamel, and could be seen putting his own scarf around Dudamel's neck as a gift. In the car ride home, my lovely wife felt similarly protective. "I just want to put a halo around all of them," she said, "so they can stay that happy forever." The orchestra doesn't just perform; they make you feel like part of a movement. This group is something.