Proms 2011: Mahler's Resurrection Symphony

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Nick Shave enjoys the drama of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra's Proms performance

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It's amazing how the atmosphere changes from one night to the next at the Royal Albert Hall. On Friday night, it was buzzing. The queue for tickets snaked its way round the outside of the building and down onto Queensgate. The corridors were unusually chaotic; the pre-concert conversation unusually loud, and the industry turnout was noticeably high. It was hot, too, but the humidity did nothing to dampen applause as each of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra’s players made their way on to the stage.

Since 2007, when the orchestra made its first visit to the Proms, El Sistema – the scheme that first got kids off the streets in Venezuela and into orchestras – has become a buzzword for all that’s good about involving children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds with classical music. On its return to the Albert Hall this year, the Simón Bolívar is no longer a youth orchestra – most of the players are now in their mid-twenties – but it’s still hard not to be struck by the sheer energy that they bring to what they play – in this instance, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

There are many reasons why the Mahler suits the Simón Bolívar. First the sheer size of the orchestra: Mahler scores the Symphony for ‘the largest possible contingent of strings’, and with around 80 string players, including no less than 14 double basses, the Venezuelan ensemble were more than adequately equipped to take on the scale of the piece. But there’s also a sense of theatre that runs through this work, with its offstage bands and fanfares, and drama is something upon which the Venezuelan ensemble thrives.

Gustavo Dudamel, greeted like a hero, and conducting without a score, wringed every bit of emotion from his players – it was tremendous to watch. But for me, the musical highlight came in the form of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson’s fourth-movement song, which was not only tremendously powerful, but effectively heightened the sense of continuity in the musical narrative. All in all, this was a remarkable display of passion by an orchestra whose players perform as though their lives are not only enriched by, but depend on the music they play.

Prom 29

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor 'Resurrection' 
Miah Persson (soprano); Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano); National Youth Choir of Great Britain; Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel 

 

Nick Shave writes for The Guardian and is contributing editor of BBC Music Magazine. A regular reviewer and blogger of the Proms, he can usually be found at the Royal Albert Hall with only seconds to spare, breaking into an ungainly powerwalk somewhere between the ticket collection desk and the stalls