A Venezuelan Debut

Sunday, February 12th. Today is an off day for the musicians of the LA Philharmonic. Following their triumphant Venezuelan debut last night, LA Phil officials smartly decided to avoid any concert or educational activities on this day and Venezuelans will be headed to the polls for the opposition party’s primaries. Elections here in Venezuela have a habit of turning confrontational and there are widespread reports of voter intimidation at polling places across the country. (As I write this, I can see and hear a political demonstration from my hotel room window.)

But more about that “triumphant Venezuelan debut.” Last night, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil took the stage of the Teatro Teresa Carreño. With seating for 2,400 people, it is the second-largest theater in South America and the former home of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra before they moved to the Inter-American Center for Social Action through Music in 2007.

Until last night, it had been 20 or 30 years since an orchestra the caliber of the LA Phil had performed in Caracas. The LA Phil had never been here, although way back when Dudamel was appointed Music Director we all knew it would not be long before he brought the LA Phil to his home turf. The orchestra arrived at the hall a few hours before the concert for some warm-up time on stage. Once again, they were greeted by El Sistema founder José Antonio Abreu who gave a heartfelt welcome to the orchestra.

Then, it was down to business with Gustavo and the band getting used to the unfamiliar concert hall. (Well, it’s unfamiliar to the LA Phil. Dudamel, of course, conducts here a lot and told the orchestra to play out because it’s not as resonant as their home at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He also warned them not to be distracted by the squeaky seats in the audience.)

After rehearsal, I wandered around the plaza of the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex. The architecture of the 250,000-ish square foot complex makes the most of the early-80s brutalist design. All that concrete makes it seem even more massive (and imposing) than it is. Still the space was filled with eager concertgoers. No ticket for these LA Philharmonic performances costs more than $8 and El Sistema sets aside tickets for members of two Caracas youth orchestras to attend most orchestral concerts here at no cost. Meaning some 200 young musicians attended last night’s concert for free. At every turn it seemed there was a teenager with an instrument strapped to his or her back.

This concert, by the way, was such an event that the presenters set up a big movie screen and seating outside the theater for anyone who wanted to come watch.

Inside the hall, the LA Phil and Dudamel gave a powerful and poignant reading of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. This is music they’ve played together more than any other work. Other than perhaps the Philharmonic staff (and the musicians themselves), I can probably say I’ve heard them perform this symphony more than anyone else on the planet. Multiple performances in LA, plus concerts in London, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, and now Caracas. As someone suggested to me recently, Mahler 9 is quickly becoming a signature for Dudamel and the LA Phil.

If the performance was great, the audience reaction was greater. On past tours, critics have bent over backwards to point out flaws in Dudamel’s interpretations, almost like they’re looking for something negative to say so they won’t seem to be hopping on a bandwagon of hype. If they need to do that to maintain some sort of critical street cred, that’s fine. But here the energy is vastly different. No one seems to be looking for the tiniest slip-up—everyone is just full of excitement to hear a great performance and to see what Dudamel is up to with his new LA family.

The reaction to last night’s concert, I think, speaks for itself. Again, my marginal cell phone videography, but the cheering sounded like a fútbol match. Dudamel even signed autographs during the curtain call. (Ahem, violists of the world: please note who gets the loudest cheer from the audience. Hint: Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour got the second-loudest.)

(PS. I had an LA Phil staff member sitting next to me at this concert, I did not record any of the performance, and am using this video solely for reporting purposes. Please don’t take photos or videos at concerts. Ever.)

After the concert we headed off to a welcome party for the orchestra. Gustavo Dudamel—who, when I talked to him before the concert, was already looking forward to the soiree—was very excited to introduce the LA Phil musicians to traditional Venezuelan music. A band had been hired and Dudamel talked a little bit about the different dances and asked each of the band members to show off their chops. I think the cuatro player was the most dazzling, but I was also a fan of the big macho dude playing the electric harp.

Tomorrow, a bunch of LA Phil musicians will be heading to several different sites for some educational activities: master classes, sectional rehearsals with a youth orchestra. I’ll be tagging along for that and will be touring the Inter-American Center for Social Action through Music. Will try to take lots of photos and videos. As always, for up-to-the minute updates, follow me on Twitter: @BrianKUSC.

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