OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony 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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Simn Bolivr
Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)

Sunday, January 22, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performance: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Mahler: Symphony No. 3; Dudamel and SBSOV

Information: www.laphil.com

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I doubt that words (at least my words) can adequately
describe what happened last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall … which won’t
prevent me from trying!

 

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
has a way of rendering listeners speechless. Part of it is the sheer
audacity that one man could actually write such a monumental piece of music: 90
minutes (almost to the second last night), five movements dealing with death,
resurrection and plenty in between. Six years transpired between the time Mahler
began the piece and completed it. He struggled to find inspiration for every
movement beyond the first. He didn’t find his way in the final movement until
he attended the funeral of conductor Hans von Bulow.

 

Assembling the forces that Mahler called for is a huge
undertaking for any organization. Among other things, the score calls for 10
(!) horns, 6 trumpets, 2 harps, organ, a large percussion section that includes
three timpanists playing two sets of tympani, two soloists and a large chorus
(last night 92 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale).

 

For this performance — part of the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s “Mahler Project” — the Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of
Venezuela bulged the stage with more than 150 musicians, which included 12
basses (stretched to the back of the stage), 17 cellos and more violins and
violas than I could count. The percussionists were so crammed together that the
cymbals player had to be careful not to KO the bass drummer. In the midst of
all of them was a cameraman focusing on Gustavo Dudamel transmitting to an
offstage band that includes brass and timpani.

 

The SBSOV is the flagship ensemble of Venezuela’s “El
Sistema” music education program (it used to be called the SB “Youth” SOV but
many of the “youth” have stayed on to play as the orchestra has gained
international renown during the past decade). Nonetheless, most of the
musicians appeared to still be very young (the group’s bio says the ages are
between 18 and 28).

 

Dudamel has been the group’s music director for 13 years
(since age 18) and he clearly has a special relationship with the musicians.
For one thing, his conducting style seems different with the SBSOV than with
the LA Phil; the responses of the “kids” to his downbeats seemed almost delayed
although in nearly all cases they were razor-sharp. The strings had a lean
sound, the brass gleamed throughout the performance and the winds were
striking. When playing all out, they could storm heaven (there’s lots of that
in this symphony) but in the tender moments they could achieve breathtaking
pianissimos. Although not quite as polished as the Phil, this is an exemplary
orchestra, especially considering the age of its members.

 

Conducting without a score (an amazing feat in itself,
although he’s not the only conductor to do so), Dudamel began with stately
tempos that began to broaden out as the second pass at the opening statement
unfolded. At the end of the first movement, Dudamel ignored what program
annotator John Henken says are Mahler’s “firm instructions to pause for at
least five minutes before launching the Andante.”
Dudamel waited two minutes, just long enough for latecomers to climb into
their seats, the orchestra to retune, and the two soloists to come onstage.

 

Dudamel took the Andante,
which is cast in the form of an Austrian Lndler (folk dance), deliberately
in contrast to the third movement, which he led with a brisk, almost jaunty
air. Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn sang the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primal Light), with rich tones
and great sensitivity, and her duet with the principal oboe was exquisite. The
marvelously soft ending made the transition to the final movement all the more
shattering.

 

Dudamel was at his most compelling leading the
40-minute-long final movement with its Gross
Appell (Great Call)
from offstage brass that eventually leads to the
chorus, which sang their hushed opening lines, Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n (Rise again, yet rise again), while
seated. Dudamel had all the men of the Master Chorale in the middle surrounded
by the female sections and the resultant tone had a deeply rich ring to it.
Soprano Miah Persson joined her radiant voice with Stotijn and, with the chorus
now on its feet and the Disney Hall organ adding impressive heft, the finale
was a majestic, glorious celebration of resurrection and eternal life.

 

In his erudite preconcert lecture, Gilbert Kaplan described
Mahler as a conductor who demanded that his orchestras treat every performance
as an unparalleled event, that everything be so compelling that the audience would
leave walking on air. Dudamel and the musicians did their parts and the
audience responded with an instant — and well deserved — standing ovation that
lasted 10 minutes and would have gone on longer if Dudamel had not led the
musicians off the stage. After all, in less than 48 hours, they will back for
Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which is even longer than the second!

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Although it’s cold and flu season (and there was
occasional hacking to be heard) there were also many moments when the hall was
so silent that even breathing was muted,; it’s part of what makes the Disney
Hall acoustics so special.

Kaplan’s hour-long preconcert lecture was well attended;
there were many more people in the hall than for Friday night’s concert talk.
It was obvious many had not attended the Symphony No. 1+10 concert lecture
because Kaplan’s opening “Peanuts” cartoon and punch line that Peppermint Patty
had been “Mahlered” got a big laugh (again). Although some of the material was “resurrected”
from the earlier talk, this was another informative and well-delivered lecture,
with good graphics and musical selections.

Both Kaplan lectures had been open to those not attending
the concerts but the Phil’s management could not say how many people took
advantage of the offer.

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

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