Review: Prom 67 by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra

Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms, culture, Alison Edwards, Kettle Mag
Written by Alison Edwards

Prom 67, on the afternoon of Sunday 4th September, saw a return of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. On the classical music scene, this group is something of a legend. Although Venezuela does not have the classical music roots of a Western European country, since the creation in 1975 of 'El Sistema' (The National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras and Choirs of Venezuela) artists from Venezuela exploded onto the international music scene.

The Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra was originally the peak of the youth music system, but rather than throw out members when they are no longer officially 'youth', the orchestra has been allowed to mature and new youth groups created to take its place within El Sistema, so the Albert Hall was hosting the first generation of the incredible sucess story of national investment in music.

First half: Venezuela and Brazil

It shows that the group has played together for a long time – their musicianship and cohesion were clear throughout the programme. The first half took the audience to South America to show off the music of their home: a beautiful, meditative piece called Hipnosa Mariposa by Paul Desenne drew on the popular songs of the late composer Diaz to build a musical picture of Venezuela, without ever falling into the trap of derivative or cheesy musical quotations.

This was followed by Villa-Lobos, a famous Brazilian composer, who used Bach as an inspiration for his collections of Bachnias brasilieras – the orchestra performed no. 2. Although the collection seemed to lack a little drive or overall cohesion, the orchestra tackled its complex rhythms and diverse orchestration easily, and it was a pleasant enough listen.

Second half: France

The second half demonstrated that the orchestra were as competent and musical tackling European music as they are with South American. Two pieces by Ravel – a suite based on his ballet Daphnis and Chloe and his well-known La valse, or the waltz – matched the dreamy, hypnotic tone of the first half perfectly.

Although the orchestra did not have the perfect, almost mechanical ensemble of the Vienna or Berlin philharmonics, say, their energy and movements on stage made it clear that they understood and felt the music as a group. Conductor Gustavo Dudamel led them with a light, undramatic presence but clearly focused the orchestra onto his beat and interpretation without any trouble.

And to finish…

For their encore, they returned to their roots with a fabulous, playful maraca concerto. And let me tell you now, if you have never seen a maraca concerto performed (complete with on-stage maraca juggling) you are missing out. And there is a sentence I never expected to say.

But that sums up the Simon Bolivar Orchestra – continually surprising us in new and wonderful ways.

You can listen to Prom 67 via the Radio 3 web site or the iPlayer radio app.

What do you think of this Prom? Have your say in the comments section below.