OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Taking the 5th — Gustavo Dudamel and the SBOV 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. 5

Thursday, January 26, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts:

Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mahler: Symphony No. 6

Information: www.laphil.com

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As I was riding the Gold Line home from last night’s concert
at Walt Disney Concert Hall, I contemplated the difference in audience reaction
to the concerts of “The Mahler Project” played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic
as opposed to those played by the Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of
Venezuela. Both ensembles have received standing ovations for their
performances, but there are LA Phil ovations and then there are those for the
Bolivr “kids.”

 

It’s not that the Bolivrs have played better than the Phil
– close, but not better. Moreover, Gustavo Dudamel (who celebrated his 31st
birthday last night) has conducted every program from memory. The hall has been
packed for each concert, although there were a few more empty seats last night
than for Sunday and Tuesday. Nonetheless, there’s an excitement level to the
reaction to the Bolivrs that palpably exceeds that accorded the Phil.

 

Part of the difference lies in the symphonies played. The
Phil opened two weeks ago with No. 4, the sunniest, shortest and least dramatic
of Mahler’s completed symphonic output. Last weekend, it came back with No. 1
and the Adagio from No. 10, and since
the Thursday and Saturday program concluded with the somber Adagio, that surely dampened the
audience’s enthusiasm. Although the “Casual Friday” concert was just Symphony
No. 1 and did receive a thunderous ovation, the excitement level was diluted
somewhat by the knowledge that a Q&A session (and/or drinks with the orchestra
members) was following.

 

By contrast, the Bolivrs have played three of the five
symphonies with the loudest, most pulsating endings. On Tuesday, they get No. 7
(also with a big finale) and they’ll be part of the combined orchestra that
plays No. 8, the other work that fits this description.

 

Another rationale for the difference in reaction is size.
The Bolivrs are putting about 175 players on stage each night, about 65 more
than the Phil for their performances (the LAPO will play Symphony No. 6 tonight,
tomorrow and Sunday and No. 9 on Feb. 3 and 5 to conclude the cycle). The 96
Bolivr string players equal what would be a large orchestra for almost
anything except Mahler. Size isn’t everything but when the Bolivrs are playing
full force, they can, indeed, make a mighty noise as we have heard to conclude
their three programs, and most in the audiences react.

 

Even with all the caveats, the excitement level for the
Bolivr concerts has been noticeably high than for the Phil. It was also that
way in 2007 when the “kids” made their Disney Hall debut in two concerts that
were among the most exciting I’ve ever attended. Excitement isn’t everything in
a concert, but once again this year it’s been noticeable.

 

Symphony No. 5 was the first symphony Mahler wrote without a
specific programmatic theme and the first since Symphony No. 1 to eschew
soloists or a chorus. The work was begun in 1901 shortly after Mahler nearly
died from an a hemorrhage that program annotator Herbert Glass called
“intestinal” and preconcert lecturer Norman Lebrecht placed slightly lower on
Mahler’s body. Like nearly all of Mahler’s symphonies, this one includes –
indeed, in this case, begins with — a funeral march but it also includes a love
poem to his bride, the famous Adagietto
for strings that Luchino Visconti would appropriate 70 years later as the theme
music for the movie Death in Venice.

 

Mahler 5 is also a piece with which Dudamel and the Bolivrs
are closely identified. They played it on their opening Disney Hall concert in
2007 (and on their subsequent cross-country tour) and later recorded it.

 

Last night was the most cohesive collaboration between
Dudamel and his youthful colleagues during this cycle and the orchestra’s
playing was exemplary. The entire brass section, led by the principal trumpet
and principal horn players, was stunning throughout the performance (the
Bolivrs don’t provide principals lists but since their listing in the program
isn’t alphabetical, I’ll take a guess that these two were Toms Medina and
Rafael Payare — they eminently deserve to be singled out). The strings played
with a rich, unified sound and amazing rhythmic precision (especially
considering their numbers); not only do these folks wield their bows in unison,
they also sway in unison.

 

As he has done in other performances during this cycle
Dudamel continues to emphasize luxuriant tempos. In both the third and fifth
movements, he occasionally got a little too cutesy in his moments of elasticity
but overall this was a smartly paced 74-minute performance that sustained
tension admirably. The Adagietto glided
along with effortless ease and the final movement was less frenetic than what
shows up on the recording or what I remember from the concert four-plus years
ago.

 

Untimately, that adds up to a level of increased maturity
that holds a great deal of promise for succeeding Dudamel years (presumably
many of them) in Los Angeles. At the same time, may he never lose the sense of
excitement that continues to pour out of all of these programs.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

Although it’s not quite as noticeable as the Vienna
Philharmonic, a colleague seated next to me noted that the Bolivrs had just 24
women in the 175 players who were on stage last night, and most of those are in
the string sections. Just two of the 32 brass players were female and none of
the percussionists.

In his preconcert lecture before Symphony No. 1, Gilbert
Kaplan said that he has heard the Adagietto
played in as little as eight minutes and as long as 15. Dudamel was in the
middle: 11 minutes.

Lebrech’s lecture last night was again insightful. He’s on
tap for the lectures on tomorrow and Sunday — arrive early; the crowds have
been overflow. Asadour Santourian, Vice President for Artistic Administration
and Artistic Advisor for the Aspen Music Festival, is listed as giving the
lecture tonight.

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

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