Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil start things in Caracas
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
After the end of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s excitable and radiant performance Saturday night at Teatro Teresa Carreño of Mahler’s hauntingly elegiac Ninth Symphony, Gustavo Dudamel stopped to sign autographs for screaming fans who ran up to the foot of the stage of Caracas’ main concert hall.
The L.A. Phil had arrived in Venezuela late the night before, and the orchestra's caravan of buses had been given a police escort from the Simón Bolívar International Airport to the orchestra’s hotel. More motorcycle police accompanied the players Saturday afternoon on the 5-mile drive from their hotel to the first of five performances in the country’s capital.
Not only is the L.A. Phil the first major international orchestra to visit Venezuela in more than two decades, but the Venezuelan conductor and his L.A. orchestra are rock stars here. So popular is Dudamel that Frank Gehry was commissioned to design a concert hall for Dudamel's hometown of Barquisimeto that the town wants to name after the 31-year-old conductor. It will replace a soccer field and serve the kind of youth orchestras Dudamel played in while growing up.
On the other hand, a police presence may have also been a wise precaution in a country notorious for its violent crime. Venezuela averaged 53 murders a day last year.
On Saturday, the expectation was such that outside the hall many ticket holders were already in line at 4 p.m. for a concert with an official 6 p.m. starting time -- and, as everyone well knew, a real starting time of 6:15 p.m. The day was warm and humid. The air was soft and thick. The very diverse audience included students and parents, rich and poor, children as young as 5. Attire could be anything: jeans and T-shirts, suits and mini-skirts. Kids carried musical instruments. Teenagers danced and necked on the plaza. Vendors sold delicious local chocolate wrapped with portraits of Gustav Mahler.
Mahler in Caracas, whether serious business or carnival, is complicated.
The first complication was the schedule. The L.A. Phil’s first concert in Caracas was to have been Sunday night, allowing the orchestra a day to rest and practice. But with elections on Sunday to determine the opposition candidate who will run against President Hugo Chavez in October, the last-minute switch was made to Saturday.
This meant that the musicians had little time to acclimate to an altitude of 3,000 feet, which can affect the breath of wind players and how instruments respond. The orchestra had only a half hour sound check in a 2,400-seat multipurpose hall built in the early 1980s with a flat, dull acoustic. The players had to suddenly push to be heard as they once did at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before the acoustically transparent Walt Disney Concert Hall was built.
Teatro Teresa Carreño's acoustics might also help explain why the Simón Bolívar Orchestra needs to be such a big band to make a big sound –- around 175 players were onstage at Disney Hall for their portion of the Mahler Project last month in Los Angeles, concerts which they repeated in the Carreño, their regular hall, last week. But there is current discussion with acoustician Yasushisa Toyota about a new Caracas concert hall complex for the Bolivars and youth orchestras. Toyota is also acoustician for the Barquisimeto hall.
All of this is thanks to El Sistema. The national teaching program is famed for having taken hundreds of thousands of young people off the Venezuelan streets and put them in orchestras. But what was apparent Saturday was just how effectively it has built audiences too. All tickets to the Mahler concerts were about $8 and sold out in less than two hours, with some people arriving in the middle of the night to wait in the ticket line.
The Sistema pupils couldn’t, of course, be missed in the audience. Not only did they tote instruments but quite a few resembled sports fans. They shushed audience members who made too much noise during the performance. When principal horn player Andrew Bain took a solo bow, huge roars came from what were obviously horn players in the audience. The same must have been true for the screams for violist Carrie Dennis.
At a sound check before the concert, Dudamel joked about his fatigue, saying today is Nine, right? Over the previous consecutive four nights, he had conducted Mahler’s Second, Third, Fifth and Seventh with the Bolivars. His only break after his last Sunday matinee performance of Mahler's Ninth in Disney was a day to travel back to Venezuela. But he appeared overjoyed, saying over and over that bringing the L.A. Phil to his home country had been his dream.
José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, welcomed the orchestra by saying that this concert would mark the beginning of a new era. He might be right. Ultimately, exhaustion, altitude and acoustics meant nothing when, for this audience, every note meant something. That, for any Mahlerian, anywhere, is a dream.
-- Mark Swed, reporting from Caracas.
Photo: The audience gathers two hours before Gustavo Dudamel was to have conducted Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Caracas, Venezuela. Credit: Mark Swed/Los Angeles Times.
Bottom: Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in Caracas. Credit: Nohely Oliveros/Fundamusical Simon Bolivar.
[For the record, 9:03 a.m. Feb. 13: A previous version of this post reported that the concluding performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony would be held Feb. 19. The broadcast is Feb. 18.]