The Encuentros Orchestra, consisting of members ranging in age from 18 to 26, displayed enthusiasm and professionalism during a performance at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 4.
Led by star conductor Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the two-hour-plus concert opened with a rousing performance of Giancarlo Castro D’Addona’s “Encuentro Obertura Festiva” — the work’s Bay Area premiere — and concluded with Antonin Dvorak’s beloved “New World” Symphony.
Dudamel created the Encuentros Orchestra in 2018 through his Dudamel Foundation as a way to “explore cultural unity and celebrate harmony, equality, dignity, beauty, and respect through music.” This year, the 106 young musicians hailed from 22 countries including the U.S., South Korea, Peru and Argentina. Prior to the concert, they spent two weeks in Los Angeles, working side-by-side with members of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles and receiving mentorship from world renowned musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic and other top tier orchestras.
“We come from different places, but we are one. We feel like one kin, like one body,” Gustavo Dudamel told the orchestra during its final rehearsal. Carillon bells rang in the distance. “Tonight, we will play with all of our energy, with all of our love.”
Berkeleyside visual journalist Ximena Natera took her mobile photo booth to the performance to capture portraits of the young musicians. Her position is a partnership with Report for America, a national service organization, and CatchLight Local, a visual storytelling initiative.
The young musicians took his words to heart that evening, giving a performance that showcased their talent and eagerness, as well as resilience — especially in the face of audio problems that would have likely derailed even the most seasoned of performers.
The concert did not, by any means, get off to a perfect start. Downbeat came around 8:15 p.m., and the evening fog had begun to roll in. Humidity is one of a musician’s worst foes, surpassed, perhaps, only by wind, and the second violins struggled with a quick page turn in the first piece. A damp sheet of music fluttered to the stage floor. A plane flew (seemingly directly) overhead.
Then came the audio problems. Less than three minutes into the D’Addona work, during a delightfully playful cello solo by co-principal cellist Siul Alberto Angel Prado of Venezuela, the theater’s sound system began to pop, crackle, and emit repeated “thwacking” sounds that jolted the audience, some of whom murmured in confusion.
But Dudamel and the young musicians paid little mind to the interruptions. The show went on. The brass and woodwinds each took turns showing off their joyful solos, and the percussion section partied raucously onstage — the highlight of the evening. The energy was palpable and contagious, and the audience cheered and clapped in delight before the piece was even over.
The same sound issues plagued the next piece, Wayne Shorter’s “Gaia.” Guest artist Esperanza Spalding, a five-time Grammy award winning bassist and vocalist, joined the orchestra for the work, alongside Matthew Stevens, guitar, Eric Doob, drums, and Darrell Grant, piano.
“Gaia” is a laid-back and somewhat murky piece, which unfortunately meant the occasional sputtering noises from the speaker became even more obvious. But for the rest of the piece, Spalding’s voice easily filled the three-quarter packed theater, and there was a sense that listeners were witnessing something magical. Spalding’s breathy high notes were backed up by the ebbs and flows of the orchestra’s accompaniment, and the foggy haze made it feel all the more otherworldly.
The orchestra ended the night with a strong performance of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony. Highlights included the cathartic English horn solo in the second movement, which, for a moment, suspended all time in the theater, and a rich clarinet solo in the fourth movement that soared above all chaos. The symphony, and program as a whole, showcased their range: They brought out both beautiful, delicate melodies and powerful, mostly unified sound.
There was room for additional refinement — some entrances, for instance, could have been neater — but that’s not quite fair for me to say, given that this group had never played together as an ensemble until two weeks ago. After all, one goes to a young orchestra’s concert not to witness technical perfection, but to feel alive and to experience the kind of unbridled energy only young musicians bring onstage.
Between clapping along to the D’Addona piece and marveling at the sheer vigor in which the orchestra, breathing and moving as one creature, attacked the final movement of Dvorak’s Ninth, I know that I, at the very least, came away with a renewed sense of hope in the future of classical music.
— Iris Kwok
Natera’s photo booth portraits were taken just before the concert, as the young musicians prepared to go onstage.