There’s no difficulty choosing the most memorable instrumental DVDs I reviewed in 2009. They were undoubtedly the two devoted to the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela — The Promise of Music (DGM 073-4427) and Live From Salzburg (DGM 073-4515).
The Promise of Music shows the lives of these musicians, the cream of a quarter of a million youngsters who’ve been taught musical instruments in Venezuela, often en masse as members of unwieldy, cacophonous orchestras. It ends with their trip to the Beethoven Festival in Bonn in 2007. Their performance there of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica) then follows complete.
Live From Salzburg contains their concert at the famous Austrian music festival the following year. They play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with Martha Argerich, making her first appearance there in 14 years, as one of the soloists, then the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. This proves an ideal vehicle for the orchestra, with its huge numbers and unconventional approach. As a bonus track you have their charismatic young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, giving a talk on parts of Mahler’s First Symphony, with musical illustrations from the orchestra.
I used to think Live From Salzburg was the more enjoyable of the DVDs, but now I’m not so sure. You need to understand the background these players have come from to properly appreciate their extraordinary achievement.
As for opera, two 2009 issues stand out. The first is the premier DVD recording of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (Opus Arte OA 0998), about Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic test in the New Mexican Desert in July 1945. This represents a vindication of contemporary opera as a whole — rhythmically powerful, emotionally gripping and vividly staged. Several bonus tracks are included on this two-DVD set, including a half-hour interview with the librettist and director Peter Sellars.
The second is totally different — a traditional production of Verdi’s Falstaff in a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1992. The cast was stellar — Barbara Bonney, Marilyn Horne and Mirella Freni, with Paul Plishka in the title role. Scenery, costumes, acting, singing and orchestral accompaniment (under the peerless James Levine) combine to make this a virtually ideal Falstaff. This legendary performance finally made it onto DVD in July.
Of these four items, only Dr Atomic doesn’t have Chinese subtitles.
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