EIF: Simón Bolívar / Dudamel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The benchmark for Edinburgh Festival Mahler performances by orchestras of a younger membership was well and truly set by the Gustav Mahler Jugendrochester under Claudio Abbado in the 1990s. Their Mahler 7 has gone down in the annals as seminal, exceptional and thoroughly mind-blowing. The same cannot be said for the performance on Saturday of Mahler’s First Symphony by the Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela.

True, the Venezuelans are officially no longer a youth orchestra, but age eligibility remains limited at the upper end to 28, so they resemble in that sense their Vienna-based counterpart. And just as the GMJ benefited way back from Abbado, the Bolívars have as their champion and music director the now internationally-renowned Gustavo Dudamel. Not even his presence on Saturday, however, nor the numerous pockets of Venezuelan flag-waving fans cheering amid the near-capacity audience, managed to raise this Mahler to the levels of brilliance we might have hoped for.

It began promisingly, a magically-suppressed strings pianissimo challenged by the distant prodding of offstage trumpets, establishing a mood of threatening unpredictability, excitable wonderment that would prevail in various guises for the ensuing hour. Dudamel knew exactly what he was about, clearly envisioned, a paragon of authority and self-belief. 

What he didn’t always get was the same in return. While much of the bigger picture was fundamentally impressive – a wild symphonic adventure through earthy Ländler and parodic Klezmer, the ironic funereal play on the tune Frère Jacques, the whooping delirium of the finale – the devil was in the detail, and an orchestral response less self-assured in its finer execution. Shaky intonation, evenness of tonal balance, even nervous attack moments were frequent irritations.

The concert had begun on home territory, with recent music by two Venezuelan composers. The first, the hi-energy Guasamacabra by Paul Desenne, who died earlier this year and was a cello alumna of the orchestra, was fittingly dedicated in this performance to the composer’s memory. It’s sidestepping charm, insatiable energy and volcanic complexity made for an ear-catching opener, yet Dudamel unearthed beneath its deceptive, John Adams-like freneticism a golden melancholy that offered flashes of emotive depth which the later Mahler could well have done with. 

Gonzalo Grau’s Odisea (Concerto for Cuatro and Orchestra) proved the novelty act, featuring the popular Venezuelan cuatro ( a small 4-stringed guitar) player Jorge Glem. Glem, in his trademark red hat, cut a cool figure, the focus of the work more geared towards showcasing him, perhaps, than offering anything of much interest for the orchestra. 

They operated mainly in a support capacity, much of it benign underscore with the periodic requirement to emerge with link material. Yes, it was colourful in a classical-folk-rock cross-genre sort of way, and Glem’s freely extended technique, combined with exotic percussion dialogue, was a crowd-pleaser. His quirky encore quoted everything from Bach to Beethoven and Bizet, but seemed a tad indulgent when the concert was already running well over time.

Not that this prevented Dudamel and the entire orchestra, itself, from unleashing their own carnival-style encores after the Mahler. It’s what we tend to remember them for. In showstoppers by Strauss and Bernstein (razzed up Caracas-style), they duly obliged.
Ken Walton