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Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar orchestra bring vigor and finesse to Symphony Center

Gustavo Dudamel conducts SimBolivar Symphony OrchestrSan Francisco last week. |  LEO RAMIREZ~Getty Images

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in San Francisco last week. | LEO RAMIREZ~Getty Images

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Updated: January 4, 2013 6:20AM

When Gustavo Dudamel last brought his Caracas-based ensemble to Chicago in spring 2009, it was a national youth orchestra headlining a Chicago “youth and music” festival.

When he returned Sunday to Symphony Center, his players had been rechristened the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Graduates of the famed “El Sistema” music education complex founded by Dudamel’s teacher, Jose Antonio Abreu, these 160 or so musicians retain the fire and excitement of their student days but have added depth and refinement as a part of their professional development. Now a grand old man of 31 and in his fourth season as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Dudamel has become increasingly economical and controlled as a conductor.

The West and East Coast anchors of this tour feature two full programs of lesser-heard music from Latin America. For this concert, the Bolivars programmed the frequently played 1935 “Sinfonia india” by Mexico’s Carlos Chavez, a genuine rarity from 1953 by Cuba’s Julian Orbon, “Tres versiones sinfonicas,” and the mammoth “An Alpine Symphony” (1911-15) of the very non-Latin Richard Strauss.

Paced at almost an hour by Dudamel, the Strauss did provide additional opportunities to see and hear how far these already excellent players and their musical director, who at 18 took over the group’s musical leadership, have come over the past 13 years. Answer? Very.

“El Sistema” has a social mission, of course. Its belief that serious music education opportunities can take kids off the streets, out of the barrios and on to the concert stage has inspired similar efforts around the world, including in the United States and Chicago. The System’s top orchestras still noticeably lack Afro-Venezuelans (in a country more than 15 percent black) while the social mission pushes a heavy component of males. boys, although I know of no other professional orchestra with four women in its string bass section.

Under Dudamel, Abreu and even younger conductors Christian Vasquez and Diego Matheuz, the players have reached an astonishing level, with excellent and rich string ensembling, wind and brass choirs, and soloists many a fully adult orchestra could envy. After several years in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the responsibilities of leadership in Los Angeles, Dudamel himself also shows additional discipline. Of his three international mentors, Dudamel conductor seems to carry the most from former CSO principal guest conductor Claudio Abbado, has discarded the empty dazzle of Simon Rattle and pared down some of Daniel Barenboim’s emotionalism while retaining the former CSO music director’s analytical skills. The Strauss was ever of a piece, its sprawl wholly tamed.

The Orbon, too, has its moments of fascination as he took three fragments from European Renaissance and medieval music, and Congolese folk material and worked various changes of Latin rhythms and sounds on them. The second section, a slow movement dubbed “Organum-Conductus,” had an eerie sense of freezing time Sunday.

After calls for encores, Dudamel told the audience that after the Strauss, “What can we do? It’s like having a meal of meat and then asking for . . . more meat!” His solution: a calming, even gentle “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” And then came “Alma Llanera,” Venezuela’s lilting, unofficial second national anthem. With some waving flags, arm-swaying and singing along from the audience, the legitimate pride in these artists was palpable.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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