Being the sort of chap who nibbles the toffee off a Twix before the biscuit, I immediately flicked to the “Mambo” section from Bernstein’s West Side Story. I couldn’t believe what I heard – the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s percussion section strike up the band with the swing, push and individuality of a dozen great jazz drummers and the brass section riff like they’re plugged into the Venezuelan national grid. The visceral impetus with which Dudamel plants firecrackers under his orchestra outplays anybody else – out-Lennying Lenny even – who has approached the piece. It’s that good, completely unheralded in fact.
As music writers, we often twist ourselves into a pretzel trying to define what makes one interpretation superior to the next, but there’s something about this performance that just is. These young musicians haven’t needed to find a Latin American feel by learning notation. It already flows through their DNA and takes them beyond the notes, direct into the marrow of the music itself. And even when a piece is amiable rather than spectacular – Evencio Castellanos’s Santa Cruz de Pacairigua being a case in point – their rhythmic nous and heightened melodic expressivity override the longueurs.
Content-wise the most robust pieces are Revueltas’s Sensemayá and the dances from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia. Revueltas’s work, an evocation of an ancient Mexican chant used to kill snakes, already enjoys a cult status that Dudamel’s understanding of its bold orchestral colourings and ritualistic power can only enhance. The Ginastera climaxes with the asymmetrical rhythmic trapdoors of “Malambo”, brass and percussion again to the fore, although the delicate oom-pahs and opulent string swells of the “Wheat Dance” offer a rare moment of tranquillity. The warm horn and subtone string introduction to Antonio Estévez’s Mediodía en el Llano also shows they can “do” delicate, but inevitably it’s the infectious hardcore Latin spirit that, once sampled, stays embedded in your imagination.