First Night: Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Royal Festival Hall, London

A class act for musicians of all ages to follow
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The Independent Culture

With its proceedings being broadcast by Classic FM, being streamed live to the Sage Gateshead's big screen, and piped simultaneously back into a supplementary auditorium outside the main one, the Royal Festival Hall was in a justifiable fizz as Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra started their five-day residency last night.

The 3,000 young musicians from youth orchestras and local schools who were invited to listen were everywhere: anything to catch some stardust from this Venezuelan band, which first took the critics by storm at a Prom two years ago, and has bowled over everyone else since.

For new listeners, their story can be quickly told. Thirty-five years ago a Venezuelan music professor named Jose Antonio Abreu had a vision: to give his country's street kids a reason to aspire to something better than drugs and crime, through a Western-style musical training.

The schools he founded proliferated so dramatically that 300,000 young Venezuelans are now integrated into what has become known as el sistema, with each child playing four hours a day, six days a week. And under his early alumnus Gustavo Dudamel the orchestra representing this system's cream has now reached a point where Simon Rattle can describe it, with studied understatement, as "one of the better orchestras one can conduct". Dudamel himself is now music director of the Gothenburg Symphony, and will shortly take the helm at the Los Angeles Philharmonic: a dizzy ascent. Last week Deutsche Grammophon released the SBYO's third Cd; their rendition of Bernstein's 'Mamba' is a YouTube hit. Classical music has never seen such a miracle, and people are now trying to replicate it here.

When the dark-suited players filled the stage to bursting, one feared so large a band might prove unwieldy for Bartok's mercurial Concerto for Orchestra. But as the initial low growls yielded to a high susurration on strings, followed by a dainty warble of flutes, one realised they were beautifully drilled. This work was designed to put individual instrumentalists into the limelight, and the alternating duets in the second movement crackled with quirky humour. The general string sound (from 42 violins) was impressively clean, and the succeeding movements were finely sculpted, with the Finale turning into the curiously-muted semi-cacophony Bartok intended.

Embodying the collision between Fate and human desire, Tchaikovsky's autobiographical Fourth Symphony began with the horns blaring out their baleful fanfare, answered by a flickering waltz on the violins: jerking like a mop-headed marionette on strings, Dudamel delineated its intricate tapestry with skilled assurance, and if his beat was at times too four-square, it was always strongly propulsive.

The encores were pure street theatre, as the hall briefly blacked out to allow the players to scramble into red, blue, and yellow. Thus transformed into a football team, they gave us a vivid sunburst of Ginastera, then twirled and tossed their instruments through Bernstein's 'Mamba', before hurling their shirts into the ecstatic crowd. A glorious start to the residency: never was an invading army more welcome.

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