OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Los Angeles Philharmonic opens “The Mahler Project” at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily



Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mahler: Songs of a
Symphony No. 4

Friday, January 13, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances: Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 2 p.m.
Preconcert lectures one hour before each concert.

Information: www.laphil.com



The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Mahler Project,” which began
last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, will ooze grandiose power during the
next 16 performances. Last night, however, Music Director Gustavo Dudamel
reminded everyone that there’s another, more lyrical side to the Austrian
composer/conductor, as well. One thing seems certain: if the quality of future
performances match last night’s, it’s going to be a very special three-plus
weeks in the City of the Angels.


Another interesting aspect of the “Project” is that — as is
the case when you experience Wagner’s Der
Ring des Nibelungen
as a cycle (i.e., four operas with the span of a week
or so) — hearing all of Mahler’s symphonies plus a song cycle in close
proximity to each other will help listeners link ties and themes (Wagner called
them leitmotivs) from one piece to


Case in point was that song cycle — Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), or Songs of a Wayfaring Journeyman, as
preconcert lecturer Stephen Hefling called it — which opened the proceedings
last night. This was Mahler’s first mature work and many of its themes appear
in later pieces. For example, themes from the second song (I Went Over the Field This Morning) and the melancholy “funeral
march” of the final song, (The Two Blue
Eyes of My Beloved)
show up again in Symphony No. 1 (the funeral march was
the first of many that Mahler would write).


The cycle’s four poems (Mahler wrote both the texts and
music) are from a 23-year-old man experiencing his first passionate love (with
a soprano named Johanna Richter) and they depict the wide range of emotions
that would permeate all of Mahler’s later works. Baritone Thomas Hampson
matched Mahler’s moods with his sensitive singing that was notable both for its
shimmering quality and pathos. Dudamel and the orchestra accompanied


Symphony No. 4 is the closest that Mahler came to a standard
four-movement symphony format, although whether any work that begins with
sleigh bells and concludes with a song that references asparagus, a slain ox
and 11,000 martyred virgins can be called “standard” is, of course, open to


Dudamel — who as was the case with Songs of a Wayfarer, conducted Symphony No. 4 without a score —
elicited a probing, urgent, scintillating performance from the Philharmonic. He
stretched tempos, but not overly so. The restatement of the opening-movement
theme was wonderfully majestic, and Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s
solos on his “other” violin (in the second movement, Mahler called for a solo
violin tuned higher than normal to simulate a country fiddler) were sparkling.


Dudamel was really in his element in the grand Adagio, building the section’s opening
theme beginning with cellos and then adding violas, second violins and first
violins, all while Principal Oboist Ariana Ghez and Principal Horn Andrew Bain
were inserting exquisite solos. (It’s worth noting that Dudamel’s seating
arrangement this season — with violas far right and all of the violins
clustered on the left really paid dividends in this movement.) The young
Venezuelan (he turns age 32 in a couple of weeks) also kept dynamics in check
so well that the big E-major chord really exploded off the stage.


Swedish soprano Miah Persson (who will also solo in the Jan.
22 performance of the Ressurection Symphony)
came onstage before the third movement last night and sat quietly within the
orchestra (in front of the winds). She then moved front and center for her fourth-movement
poem, Heavenly Life, which she sang
with opulent radiance. The ending was as wistfully quiet as I can remember
hearing, an effect that will show up again to conclude the Ninth Symphony in
early February. Between now and then, it looks like we’re in for quite a ride.




Hefling — professor of music at Case Western Reserve
University in Cleveland — delivered an excellent, albeit academic, lecture
before the concert. Unfortunately, many of his projections were unreadable from
the back of the room and the screen should have been higher (he kept
highlighting things at the bottom of the images that couldn’t be seen through
people’s heads). Nonetheless, it was an insightful lecture that had a real
bonus: selections of Mahler playing portions of his songs via 1905 piano rolls.

Considering that most of Mahler’s symphonies stretch more
than 75 minutes in length, the Phil’s decision to insert an intermission
between the 20-minute song cycle and the 59-minute symphony seemed a bit
strange going in. However, aside from allowing the Phil to rack up bucks with
booze sales, the decision also gave listeners a chance to savor the exquisite
performance from Hampson and the Phil before tackling the symphony.

The printed program, which covers all the “Mahler Project”
concerts, lists the Adagio from
Symphony No. 10 following Symphony No. 1 in next weekend’s concerts. That makes
sense from a bookend point of view but how this will play out in performance
will be one of the intriguing aspects of the concerts. Dudamel may not hold to
the printed schedule — in previous seasons, he has occasionally reordered works
after putting them into rehearsal.

Take note: Friday is a “Casual Friday” concert, which
means that the Adagio from Symphony
No. 10 will not be played. Usually this format includes a musician talking
before the performance, a Q&A (which often includes Dudamel), following the
performance, and a reception with musicians in the downstairs caf afterwards.

Next week’s Mahler No. 1 preconcert lectures by Gilbert
Kaplan begins at 6:30 p.m. (90 minutes before the concert). The
preconcert lecture by Kaplan in advance of Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) will begin at 6 p.m. on Jan. 22. Both lectures will
be in the main auditorium (not BP Hall) and can also be attended by those
without concert tickets. Reserve ahead of time (323/850-2000 or via email to information@laphil.org
with “Mahler Project RSVP” in the subject line) and plan on arriving at least
15 minutes before the lecture time.



(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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