Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra: Considered But Lacking Drive

Olivier Messiaen Turangalíla-symphonie (1948)

Conductor Gustavo Dudamel
Piano Yuja Wang
Ondes martenot Cynthia Millar
The Simón Bolívar Orchestra of Venezuela 

The Royal Festival Hall

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie is not exactly the subtlest of works. It may be a celebration of love, but it is love in its most exuberant and brash form. Messiaen employs a huge orchestra for the work, with three times the number of usual winds, an extensive percussion section – including gongs, glockenspiel, chimes, wood block amongst other – a massive range of brass and an enormous string section. A prominent role is also given to the piano and an intriguing electronic instrument called the ondes martenot.


Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre 16.01.16 © Nohely Oliveros / Fundamusical Bolívar

For an orchestra known for its dazzling dynamism (their 2007 performance at the BBC Proms, where they danced, donned jackets of their national colours and threw their instruments into the air, is still the stuff of legends), a work that demands such enthusiasm should be a gift for the Simón Bolívar Orchestra. There is nevertheless more to playing with energy than simply playing loudly.

Now in his mid-thirties, Dudamel’s conducting style has become more restrained. Gone are the days when his curly hair would bounce and flip all over the place as he conducted with every inch of his body. At last night’s concert his hair was smartly slicked back, and his gestures never became too excessive. But Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie is an outright ridiculous work, and given there were several moments when the Simón Bolívar Orchestra struggled to maintain the energy required, some wilder conducting would have been beneficial. Messiaen frequently uses repetition to bring some coherence to the gigantic work. Repetitions in the first and fourth movements in particular lacked the drive to produce the thrill of a growing intensity. Instead the music stalled. Even the fifth movement’s gloriously vigorous love tune could have been ever shinier and brasher.


Gustavo Dudamel & Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre 16.01.16 © Nohely Oliveros / Fundamusical Bolívar

This missing exuberance was disappointing, but it was not completely absent. The orchestra started to capture the rhythmic drive in the second movement and the wholehearted orchestral tuttis were a treat throughout. In the fourth movement, these were particularly sumptuous, emphasising the contrast with Messiaen’s jauntier, sparser passages that were interspersed between these moments of lavish orchestral romanticism.

Dudamel treated these sparser moments with consideration too. He offered guidance during passages of solo interactions between a few individual players, rather than pushing them where they didn’t want to go. The fourth movement opened with a cheeky piccolo solo with bassoon and percussion, which was far more successful in producing a rhythmic, foot-tapping drive than the big orchestral repetitions. A chamber-like passage opened the third movement too, with a charming but eerie duet between clarinet and Cynthia Millar on ondes martenot. The ondes martenot is a curious addition by Messiaen, and Millar’s playing brought a fascinating other element to the orchestral sound. Its electronic sound was otherworldly, yet it blended seamlessly in with the strings, giving the section an unfamiliar edge.

Messiaen’s Turrangîla is huge, eclectic and sometimes overwhelming. Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra certainly treated the work with reverence, but a little more bombastic dynamism would not have gone amiss.

Leave a comment


  1. Ken Anderson

     /  18/01/2016

    How can you possibly write a credible review of this concert without one single mention of Yuja Wang, whose contribution was prominent to say the least?

    • Thanks Ken, I do see your point. Even though the piano part is demanding in the Turangalila Symphonie, it is not a concerto – if anything it is more like a concerto for orchestra.

      The reason I didn’t mention Yuja Wang is that I had nothing interesting to say. She gave a fine performance, but this is to be expected for a pianist of her calibre. Her performance is only worth mentioning is she disappoints or exceeds expectations, and in this case she did neither.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: