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Conductor Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela concert at Zellerbach Hall. (Peg Skorpinski/Cal Performances)

Once again, Gustavo Dudamel has come to town with his special ways: among other things showing that classical music can artfully embrace drum freak-outs and flat-out fun. By the time his Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra had finished its program Thursday at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, its 160 youthful members were dancing, spinning their instruments in the air and shouting "mambo!" -- and the audience was shouting back.

Dudamel/Bolívar concerts typically end with a party; if this is a shtick, I say, "Lay it on." Still, the 31-year-old Venezuelan conductor doesn't just come to mambo. Classical music hasn't seen a phenomenon of his order in decades, arguably since the advent of Leonard Bernstein. And this week in Berkeley, Dudamel used his bully pulpit to introduce audiences to Latin American composers who are barely known in this country -- and sold out the hall in the process.

The revelation of Thursday's program (the first of two) was "La Noche de los Mayas" ("The Night of the Mayas") by Silvestre Revueltas, the Mexican composer who scored the piece in 1939 for a film of the same name by director Chano Urueta. The performance, in the program's second half, grew across four movements into something of a bacchanal, savage in the manner of Stravinsky, but along the way as yearningly pitched as Mahler. Yet essentially this music is rooted in Mexican native dance, in Mayan song. It is gripping and unique.

In 2010, Dudamel recorded "La Noche" with this orchestra, which used to be known as the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela -- until some of its members passed the age limit, undeniably turning into adults.


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Most of its members still are in their teens and 20s, and it remains the flagship orchestra of Venezuela's vaunted music education program known as "El Sistema" ("The System"), which has nurtured Dudamel and about 250,000 others. Officially known as the National System of Children and Youth, the program was founded in 1975 by composer/economist José Antonio Abreu, who was in Berkeley this week to give a public talk with Dudamel during a forum on music education titled "Reaching for the Stars."

But back to Revueltas, a tragic figure, who died at 40 in 1940, an alcoholic, an anti-fascist freedom fighter; a film should be made about him. In 1960, his movie score was edited into this four-part suite by Mexican conductor José Ives Limantour. And now here we are with Dudamel, carrying the torch.

Thursday, his conducting was contained, elegantly communicative. The suite's atmospheric opening movement kept intensifying; it became an oceanic rhapsody. The second movement -- a scherzo derived from Spanish and native dances to evoke a night of revelry -- was hair-raising; swarms of buzzing notes from the strings. One expected the violinists to burn straight through string with bow.

The third movement (Andante espressivo) is the one haunted by Mahler, with the violins perched perilously high on the G string. And then the percussion section took over for the finale, "Noche de Encantamiento" ("Night of Enchantment,"), a theme and variations. Drums, native percussion instruments and xylophone -- a barrage, in back and forth dialogue with primordial brass chants and full orchestra, whose every member in essence became a drummer.

It was something like Machito meeting Stan Kenton in a time machine, landing in an ancient rural village in the Yucatán. I'm not sure what sorts of rituals were being evoked, but it gathered momentum like a train headed toward a wall -- shocking, the way "The Rite of Spring" can be shocking. Dudamel's eyes gleamed with delight.

The audience demanded encores. There were two: "Conga del fuego nuevo" by Arturo Márquez (with trumpets riding off into the sunset) and Leonard Bernstein's "Mambo," the orchestra's signature piece, which was greeted with shouts and whistles from the crowd. After all the bows, Dudamel blew kisses to his fans, and then it was over.

Oh, the program's first half; it was quite excellent, just less memorable.

Dudamel and the orchestra played Sinfonia India (from 1935), by Carlos Chávez, dean of Mexican composers, and Tres Versiones Sinfonicas (from 1953) by Julián Orbón, the Spanish-Cuban-American composer who once worked as Chávez's assistant in Mexico City. I was especially taken with the stasis-and-surge of Orbón's second movement, inspired by the medieval polyphony of Pérotin. This was evocative: the musical version of lying on a summer lawn under the night sky, watching shooting stars.

Still, these works share much of the same mid-century populist language that we (in this country) associate with the likes of Copland and Bernstein. There was an element here of "we've heard this before." With Revueltas, that wasn't the case, not for a minute.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Works by Esteban Benzecry, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Antonio Estévez
When: 8 tonight
Where: Zellerback Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $30-$175, 510-642-9988, www.calperformances.org