Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berkeley

OSSB La Phil Dudamel
Nohely Oliveros/Courtesy
OSSB La Phil Dudamel

Few works of classical music have inspired as much controversy as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. From its Viennese debut in 1824 to a performance at the Hearst Greek Theatre on Sept. 25, the symphony can be understood as either the ultimate culmination of Beethoven’s genius or one last, mad attempt by a deaf and slightly senile composer.

At the very least, Beethoven’s Ninth is an extraordinarily innovative piece, making it perfect for the debut of Cal Performances’ Research and Development Initiative in Creativity, Arts and Learning, or RADICAL, initiative. This new program seeks to promote artistic literacy within local schools and the community.

For the inaugural performance, RADICAL presented the world-famous Gustavo Dudamel as he conducted the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, or SBSOV. The conductor was a fitting choice, as Dudamel is a champion of early exposure to the arts and a product of a similar arts initiative himself. He is already the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the SBSOV at the age of 34, but Dudamel began his musical training in a Venezuelan program called El Sistema that aims to nurture young musicians. He accepts no fees when conducting SBSOV — which he has done for the past 16 years — and has brought music to hundreds of children in underserved communities through Youth Orchestra L.A.

Needless to say, as a man revered for both his conducting prowess and selfless dedication to fostering artistic passion in youth, Dudamel was heartily welcomed in Berkeley.

As the night at the Greek Theatre began, musicians crawled over chairs and wriggled carefully through a maze of stands, instruments in hand. Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Matias Tarnopolsky gave a brief introduction in English and in Spanish. Amid uproarious applause, Dudamel himself walked onstage, sporting his trademark impish grin.  

The opening allegro ma non troppo movement began softly and subtly with open fifth intervals that foreshadowed some cosmic explosion to come —  and come it did. Although the SBSOV is primarily composed of young musicians, the ensemble played with remarkable maturity. Smooth, warm tones filled the evening air, and every tendril of melody sent a fresh wave of chills rippling through the amphitheater. Under the direction of Dudamel’s vivacious conducting, the orchestra swayed in unison with the mesmerizing pulse of a working organ. Steadily, the orchestra built up to the choral climax in the final movement.

Despite Dudemel’s physically small frame, he definitely commanded the stage. Energy radiated from sweeping gestures and petite wrist flicks, and his entire form — up to the bouncing mass of curls on his head — became the physical embodiment of each phrase. It was clear from his continued eye contact and the expressions on his remarkably emotive face that Dudamel seamlessly communicated with the musicians.

Compositionally speaking, Beethoven’s Ninth stands out, not only for its extreme technical demands but also for its choral setting in the final movement. The symphony represented the first instance of a major composer incorporating voices and words into a symphony — in this case, the optimistic words of Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” The choir — which included the UC Chamber Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir Academy and the San Francisco Girls Chorus — performed a resplendent rendition of the finale “Ode to Joy” movement. Soloists Mariana Ortiz (soprano), J’nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Guerrero (tenor) and Solomon Howard (baritone) delivered the difficult runs and complex harmonies effortlessly.

When the choir and and orchestra finally did come together for this iconic refrain, the results were spectacular. Beethoven’s melodies and variations altered rapidly in timbre, an explosion of sound that was, at times, fearsome but awe inspiring at others. The triumphant booming of the timpani and sonority of the choir’s cavernous voices championed brotherhood with: “Seid umschlungen Millionen! / Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!” (“Be embraced, ye millions! / This kiss is for the entire world!”), causing an enthusiastic audience member to jump up and shout, “Yes!” And indeed, it was a night of yeses — to artistic literacy, to Dudamel and the SBSOV, to the unifying power of music.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].