El Sistemo 40: A Celebration – The Simon Bolivar Sym. Orch. of Venezuela/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG

by | Feb 1, 2016 | Classical CD Reviews

Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela celebrate 40 years of El Sistema.

El Sistemo 40: A Celebration – The Simon Bolivar Sym. Orch. of Venezuela/ Gustavo Dudamel – DGG 479 4447, 63:52 *****:

On a summer day in 1975, in a garage basement in Caracas, Venezuela, a man distributed musical instruments to 11 adolescents. He told them “You are making history”. The man was José Antonio Abreu – organist, economist, educator, politician – and the kids were the first participants in El Sistema, a truly phenomenal movement that has propagated around the world for four decades. It was Abreu’s political and economic skills that convinced the Venezuelan Health Department to fully fund what he referred to as a “social program”. In exchange for use of the instrument and lessons, each child promised to devote 20+ hours per week to practice – and to perform, as part of an orchestra, for family and community when ready.

A version of El Sistema (officially “The National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela”) exists in most major countries around the world, and one of Venezuela’s major exports is orchestral players. Among the hundreds of thousands trained, one has emerged into an international spotlight. Gustavo Dudamel joined El Sistema as a 10-year-old violinist. Now he leads three prominent orchestras – Gothenberg, Los Angeles, and the Simon Bolivar Philharmonic. This last ensemble performs on this disc, along with a string quartet of El Sistema alumni. Every track is a celebration of musical excellence and excitement.

The first track, Leonard Bernstein’s (1918 – 1990) Mambo from West Side Story, captures the Latin rhythm beautifully and features the orchestra members vocalizing. Next, another American inspiration, this time by the Simon Bolivar String Quartet (four guys who look like rugby players – but sound like angels) playing the Finale from Antonin Dvořák’s (1841 – 1904) American Quartet.

Three Latin American composers are represented next: first is the youngest, Mexican Arturo Marquez (b. 1950) with his Danzon #2 featuring catchy use of the wood block. Second is Silvestre Rivueltas (1899 – 1940), also Mexican. We hear a middle movement of his La noche de los Mayas (Night of the Mayas) entitled Noche de jaranas (Night of revelry) Allegro (Tempo di son). Third is Argentinian Albero Ginastera (1916 – 1983) with the first movement of his Dances from the Ballet Estancia (“Ranch”), entitled Lod trabjadores agricolas (The Land Workers). This highly spirited dance must have been done on the way to the fields, not after a day’s work. It is not clear why the album producers decided to split up Ginastera’s Estancia Dances, programming #1 here, but #4 and #2 later, separated by two movements of his String Quartet.

The next track is one that must resonate with Maestro Dudamel for it was on the program when he made his U.S. debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2005, at age 24. It’s P. I. Tchaikovsky’s (1840 – 1893) Symphony #5, Third Movement Valse, Allegro Moderato, as cool and controlled a performance as I’ve heard from any orchestra. L. V. Beethoven’s (1770 – 1827) Symphony #3 (“Eroica”) Third Movement Scherzo, another challenging workhorse from the classical repertoire. The horns are particularly outstanding here.

Back to Ginastera for the next four tracks: first the final Estancia Dance (Malambo0, with an incessant, hypnotic beat. Next the Simon Bolivar Quartet returns, this time with the final two movements of Ginastera’s First String Quartet – 3. Calmoe poetico, and 4. Allegramente rustic – with very fine playing (but why not the whole quartet?). And the orchestra returns with the second of the Estancia Dances – Danza del trigo (Wheat Dance) a slow, quiet, contemplative melody – not really dance-like, but with a sweet piano-violin passage.

The album concludes with a revolutionary piece of music – the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 – 4. Allegro con brio played faster than I have ever heard it. The speed causes the strings to be a little muddy near the end.

The accompanying booklet has a good description of El Sistema in English, French and German, with photos of Abreu, Dudamel and the String Quartet, but no references to the music selected. The original recordings were done in two Caracas locations, over six years, and with the wonderful Deutsche Grammophon technicians in charge of recording. The tracks used here are re-issues from Dudamel’s 11 CDs and 5 DVDs to date.

All in all, this is a wonderful introduction to El Sistema, the most heart-warming story for lovers of classical music.

—Paul Kennedy