OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Gustavo Dudamel and L.A. Philharmonic play Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 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. 6

Friday, January 27, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances:
Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Information: www.laphil.com

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Of all of Mahler’s 9.5 symphonies (10.5, if you count Das Lied von der Erde as a symphony),
No. 6 is probably the strangest (although some might vote for No. 7). At a
glance the 6th looks like a traditional format — four movements with
titles that read pretty much like standard symphonic fare — but when you hear
it there’s not much traditional about how it plays out. The contrasts are
formidable: lyrical one moment, then grotesque, then grandiose. It moves from
weird to wonderful and back over 87 minutes (last night).

 

In some ways, Symphony No. 6 looks backward towards the 19th
century of Brahms, Wagner and Richard Strauss; it also looks forward to what
would come, including the atonal music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, to the
20th and even the 21st centuries. During his preconcert
lecture, Asadour Santourian quoted Mahler as saying that to understand the
sixth symphony, you have to know the other five, so hearing it within the
context of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Mahler Project” certainly fulfilled
that requirement for many people. Nonetheless, I have never completely grasped
the piece and still don’t, even after a sweeping performance by Gustavo Dudamel
and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last night.

 

Among the work’s intriguing aspects:

Mahler began the piece in the summer of 1903, one of the
happiest times of his life personally and professionally. Yet in the fourth
movement he wrote of the downfall of his “hero” (and/or of himself) by
inserting three massive hammer blows that were, as he later wrote, “on whom [the
hero] falls three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is
felled.”

 

When he revised the work, Mahler omitted the third hammer
blow as being too agonizing — some conductors play the work with two hammer
blows, others with three (Dudamel reportedly rehearsed it with three yesterday
morning but in last night’s performance omitted the third).

 

Incidentally, Mahler’s hammer is not a stick beating on a
bass drum or timpani. The Phil’s mallet looks like it was pilfered from the
“ring the bell” game at a carnival and it was pounded on a wooden box that
measured about four feet long by four feet high and two feet deep — the
percussionist had to mount steps to whack the top of the box.

 

Mahler originally wrote the Scherzo as the second movement, then later reversed its order with
the Andante. Throughout the
subsequent century, conductors have performed the symphony following one order
or the other. Last night’s printed program called for the LAPO perform it with scherzo followed by andante, Dudamel reversed the order and management added a slip
sheet into the program to announce the change.

 

The hammer is just one of a large number of percussion
instruments that Mahler employs during the symphony. The list includes snare
drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, two sets of cowbells (one
onstage, the other offstage), offstage bells, two sets of timpani, and three
pair of giant cymbals that at one point are played together. The work is also
scored for two harps and two celestas.

 

As he has done throughout the cycle, Dudamel conducted
without a score, but unlike other performances, this one emphasized propulsive
energy rather than languid tempos. The Philharmonic was again in top form
throughout the evening. For all of the massive fortissimo outbursts, what stood
out for me was the Andante with
luscious string sounds interspersed with exquisite solo work from Ariana Ghez,
oboe; Carolyn Hove, English horn, Michelle Zukovsky, clarinet; and Andrew Bain,
French horn.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

British author and columnist Normal Lebrech provides the
preconcert lecture tonight and tomorrow. If his crowds approach those at his
lectures on Tuesday and Thursday, plan on arriving early as those crowds in BP
Hall were overflowing.

The Simn Bolivr Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
continues the Mahler cycle on Tuesday with Symphony No. 7. The Phil returns
next Friday and Sunday (Feb. 3 and 5) with Symphony No. 9 and both ensembles
join eight soloists and more than 800 choristers at the Shrine Auditorium on
Feb. 4 for Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a
Thousand).

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

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