OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Dudamel and L.A. Phil play Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mahler: Symphony No. 1

Friday, January 20, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performance:
Tonight at 8 (includes Adagio from
Symphony No. 10)

Preconcert lecture by Gilbert Kaplan at 6:30 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

  

Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

Dudamel and Simn
Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela

Mahler: Symphony No.
2 (Resurrection)

Preconcert lecture by Gilbert Kaplan at 6:00 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

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Although it meant not hearing the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, I’m glad that the Los Angeles
Philharmonic elected to make last night’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.
1 part of its “Casual Friday” format.

 

The Phil was one of the first major orchestras — perhaps the
first — to adopt this method of reaching out to people who don’t ordinarily
attend concerts by providing more than music to the experience.

 

“Casual Friday” has obviously struck a chord. These concerts
always draw large crowds, many of whom are regular concertgoers who just like
the somewhat different approach while others match the original target
audience. Giving both groups a chance to experience Gustavo Dudamel’s affinity
for the Austrian composer/conductor who he calls Gustavo Mahler was a smart
move, IMHO.

 

Dudamel has a long history with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It
was the first major piece he conducted (at the age of 16). Mahler’s first was
also on Dudamel’s inaugural Walt Disney Concert Hall program as the Phil’s 11th
music director on Oct. 8, 2009 and appeared on his first subscription programs
later that week. In 2010, Dudamel and the Phil played the work on a
cross-country U.S. tour.

 

Exciting as those 2009 concerts were, particularly the
inaugural gala concert, there was an edgy, nervous quality to the performances,
even though the orchestra played superbly. Last night, the nervousness was
gone, the feeling more cohesive, and the quality was even better. As cellist
Barry Gold said in the post-concert Q&A, “We [the Phil and Dudamel] know
each other better now after three years of playing and touring together. We’ve
gotten inside the music more.” And, one believes, inside themselves more, as
well.

 

Last night, that translated into both an exhilarating and
subtle performance of this symphony, an amazing composition for a composer
still in his 20s. In his preconcert lecture, Gilbert Kaplan said, “Everything
that would come to characterize Mahler is found in his first symphony.” Thus,
even novice concertgoers among last night’s audience could come away with an
understanding of why, 101 years after his death, Mahler remains a composer that
speaks directly to 21st century listeners and also why the Phil’s
“Mahler Project” has captured many (although not all) people’s imaginations.

 

This was one of those nights when to have a side or
straight-on view of Dudamel conducting was pure joy. As happens during his
finest moments, every conducting gesture Dudamel made — from the smallest
twitch to the largest swoop — had musical meaning, and he reveled in — indeed,
lingered over — even the smallest details. Yet the entire performance held
together as an organic whole, which wasn’t really the case three years ago, and
all sections of the orchestra were in top form.

 

Conducting without a score, Dudamel painted this 58-minute
tone poem with a multi-hued palette. He chose expansive tempos for nearly the
entire first movement, building gradually over the first 15 minutes to the
final two-minute thunderous climax. The second was a yin and yang of shifting
dynamics.

 

It was the third movement — with its fusion of a sardonic
funeral march and a klezmer-like street-band celebration — that really stood
out for me. Dudamel’s balancing of these seemingly disparate elements was
masterful and the orchestra’s principal soloists — including Christopher
Hanulik, bass; Ariana Ghez, oboe; David Buck, flute; Andrew Bain, horn and
Thomas Hooten, trumpet —  really
shone. There were two especially magical moments: just as the harp was setting
a mood, the violins floated in almost imperceptibly, and the stillness of the
concluding measures really made the opening of the final movement explode.

 

In that final movement, Dudamel bookended furiously urgent
passages around a tender, expansive middle section. Some may find those
extremes too jarring (some critics on that 2010 tour did) but for me it was
exactly the right way to conclude a superlative performance.

 

About half of the members of the Simn Bolivr Symphony
Orchestra of Venezuela were seated directly behind the Phil for the concert.
Dudamel and the Phil established what might be an impossibly high standard for
their young counterparts to aspire when they take the Disney Hall stage for
their portion of “The Mahler Project” beginning Sunday night. But, as those of
us who heard the Bolivars in 2007 recall, don’t bet against them coming really,
really close.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Gilbert Kaplan’s hour-long lecture proved to be an
excellent sketch of Mahler’s life and symphonies. Among the more interesting
points were that Mahler was age six when he composed his first work: a polka
with (what else) a funeral march! (Even at a young age, Mahler had plenty of
grief moments; five of his siblings died during infancy.)

During the Q&A, LAPO President Deborah Borda said that
all 5,000+ tickets for the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 on Feb. 4
have been sold.

There are obviously a lot of “Casual Friday” concert
regulars for whom the musician’s talk to open the proceedings isn’t important.
At 8 p.m. (the alleged start time), the hall was only about three-quarters
full; most (but not everyone) had finally showed up by the downbeat of the
symphony at 8:17.

One of the interesting aspects of the Q&A is that
you’re never sure what will come from the audience. Borda smilingly ducked a
question from a New Yorker who asked why the L.A. Phil doesn’t offer tickets to
open rehearsals as happens at the New York Philharmonic. Although, as Borda
pointed out, the Phil does offer free seating at Hollywood Bowl rehearsals, it
has no program for Disney Hall concerts. The NYPO’s open rehearsals at Avery
Fisher Hall usually occur on Thursday mornings and cost $18 each, about a third
the price of the cheapest NYPO concert ticket. The Boston Symphony has a
similar program.

Thomas Hooten, currently principal trumpet of the Atlanta
Symphony, has returned for his second guest stint with the Phil. He alsop filled
in for Donald Green, who is on sabbatical, at the beginning of the season.

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