Review By Joe Milicia
Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel has been getting a great deal of attention lately: rave reviews for guest appearances with leading orchestras, recordings for Deutsche Grammophon of the Mahler Fifth and Beethoven Fifth and Seventh; and of course his appointment as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to succeed Essa-Pekka Salonen. Fiesta, his new recording of Latin American music, got an ecstatic review from The Gramophone. "Dudamel's charisma beats through every bar of this scintillating survey….The visceral impetus with which Dudamel plants firecrackers under his orchestra outplays anybody else -- out-Lennying Lenny [Bernstein] even.... It's that good, completely unheralded in fact."
I can't go that far, but it's still a pretty exciting CD, not to mention generous in its 76" length, and the repertoire is of considerable interest. Besides warhorses like Revueltas' Sensemayà, Ginastera's Estancia Suite and a brief encore from West Side Story, we get to hear engaging pieces by four Venezuelan composers whom very few listeners outside Latin America, or perhaps Venezuela itself, are likely to have encountered.
Let me turn to those "new" composers first. InocenteCarreño'sMargariteña (1954) is a 13-minute set of symphonic variations, based on both a popular song about someone named Margarita and a Venezuelan musical form called the margariteña. Alternately grandiose and gentle (Dudamel calls it "nostalgic" in the program notes), it uses a large orchestra colorfully, opening with a French horn solo and spotlighting quite a few others, including solo violin — all played with tremendous character and verve by members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. The conductor claims one can "feel the beach in this piece…feel the air and smell the water" — perhaps the way American listeners can "feel" or see a cowboy campfire or the Great Plains in a work by Aaron Copland or Roy Harris.
Such personal/cultural associations with music — overwhelmingly powerful sometimes — are notoriously hard to pin down. The next Venezuelan piece on the program, Mediodía en el Llano, "Noon on the Plain," by Antonio Estévez, pictures Venezuela's own Great Plains or pampas, their high cattle grasslands. It's an 8-minute landscape in sound which Dudamel connects to Debussy's impressionism (perhaps he has "Nuages" ["Clouds"] in mind), though a listener might also find a kinship to such very different mood pieces as Schoenberg's "Yesteryears" and "Colors" from his Five Pieces for Orchestra or Ferde Grofe's "Painted Desert" from the Grand Canyon Suite. In any case, it's a lovely piece with distinctive sounds of its own.
Aldemaro Romero's Fuga con Pajarillo raises yet more questions about what a non-Venezuelan listener might be missing. A pajarillo is a type of Venezuelan dance — "perhaps the most famous one, alongside the joropo," according to Dudamel. The seven-minute piece, a fugue (taken from a Suite for Strings, though the present arrangement is for full orchestra), reminds me of a vigorous movement from one of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras, those suites which ingeniously combine Bach and Brazilian folk or popular tunes. Doubtless, Venezuelan listeners will have a special appreciation of the piece's Latin rhythms, but any of us can enjoy the panache with which Dudamel and his orchestra play it.
The last of the Venezuelan pieces, and longest at 16-minutes, is a Symphonic Suite called Santa Cruz de Pacairigua, a portrait of a festival surrounding the church of the title. It's a splashy panorama, perhaps a little less "raucous" than the program note considers it, i.e., more genial than, say, the final moments of Respighi's Roman Festivals or Debussy's Iberia, but a good deal of fun, with perfumed nocturnal moods in the middle.
Dudamel opens his program with Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas' Afro-Cuban-themed, Rite-of-Spring-flavored Sensemayà, a piece recorded by Leonard Bernstein among many others. I had at hand Esa-Pekka Salonen's LA Philharmonic version (from a 1992 all-Revueltas disc on Sony), and can say that the Finn's version is colder, more intense or hieratic (the piece portrays a snake-killing ceremony) — it's black-and-white compared to the rich Technicolor of the Bolivar Youth Orchestra, thanks partly to DG's sensational sound but also to Dudamel's conception of the piece. Another Mexican piece on the program is Arturo Márquez' Danzón No. 2 of 1994, a work new to me although the program note nicknames it "Mexico's second national anthem" and Dudamel claims that "Young people here dream of playing" it. It's certainly one of the most immediately appealing works on the program, both tuneful and infectious in rhythm (there are several shifts between slower and faster tempos).
The other works on the CD are the Argentine Alberto Ginastera's Estancia Suite (from a ballet that is a pampas version of Copland's Rodeo) and the Mambo from West Side Story. There have been fine recordings of Estancia [Ranch] — Seiji Ozawa once did a bang-up job with the Chicago Symphony on EMI — but Dudamel's forces once again acquit themselves extremely well, with a notably fast finale. The Mambo is almost outrageously fast in an in-concert performance (the crowd cheering as the piece begins), ending the program with a swaggering gesture.
"Completely unheralded"? I'm not so sure, but in this repertoire Dudamel and his orchestra might be called supreme, and much the same could be said about DG's recording team.