OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Bottom of the 9th for L.A. Phil’s “Mahler Project”

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

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



Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Friday, February 3, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next performances:

Tonight at 8 Shrine Auditorium

Mahler: Symphony No. 8 (Symphony
of a Thousand)


Tomorrow at 2 p.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall

Mahler: Symphony No. 9




It would certainly be understandable if last night’s
performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 was less than spellbinding.


For one thing, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles
Philharmonic have spent the last month (along with the Simn Bolivr Symphony
Orchestra of Venezuela) performing Mahler’s 9 symphonies (plus a song cycle)
in the Phil’s “Mahler Project.” By the conclusion of tomorrow’s concert,
Dudamel will have led 17 concerts in 24 days, all from memory. And there’s no
rest on the horizon: the orchestras fly to Caracas where they begin the cycle
again on Wednesday (see Hemidemisemiquavers
below for details).


This week, the Phil has been sandwiching rehearsals of the 9th
and 8th symphonies between programs (including the 7th
Tuesday night). Yesterday morning, the Phil, SBOV and eight soloists and 800+
choristers spent 2 hours polishing Mahler’s 8th (which plays tonight
at the Shrine Auditorium) about 12 hours after the end of Thursday night’s
performance of Symphony No. 9 and about seven hours before last night’s rendition.



So the Phil — and in particular, Dudamel — must be verging
on exhaustion but you’d never know it by last night’s performance of Symphony
No. 9. Adrenaline can be a wonderful thing for a performer and it surely must
be driving Gustavo at this point. The orchestra’s playing was astounding — I’m
not sure I’ve ever heard them play better.


Much has been said and written about this last symphony that
Mahler completed (click HERE for Herbert Glass’ program note). Like many
commentators, Glass calls it a “farewell symphony,” but preconcert lecturer Dr.
Marilyn McCoy argued (persuasively, I think) that, rather than depicting
sadness, Mahler wrote the piece “with a passionate love of life.”


Although by 1907, Mahler had been diagnosed with the heart
condition that would ultimately contribute to his death four years later and
had suffered deaths of many siblings and a daughter, McCoy noted that when
Mahler began writing Symphony No. 9 in 1909, he was in fact in good health and
looking forward to a new season with what would become the New York
Philharmonic, both which call into question (in her mind, at any rate) whether
this was, indeed, a “farewell.”


It’s also worth noting when approaching a performance of
Symphony No. 9 that the piece — as do many of Mahler’s works — looks backward
to the last part of the 19th century but is also a precursor to the
music that would come that would come in the 20th. Glass quotes
English composer-musicologist Deryck Cooke as believing “that the overall
structure of the 9th Symphony was influenced by the layout of
Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony
(1893) with its two huge slow movements surrounding a steady dance and fast
march.” On the other hand, 20th century composers such as Berg,
Schoenberg and Webern were certainly influenced by Mahler’s music (Cooke even
adds Shostakovich to that mix).


To that latter list, I would add Bartok. While Mahler wrote
no concertos by name, Symphony No. 9 — to my ears — is as much a Concerto for
Orchestra as it is a symphony. Nearly every principal player and every section
get their moment — sometimes many moments — in the solo spotlight. All were
uniformly brilliant last night, although Principal Horn Andrew Bain has to
merit a special nod for his stellar work. It’s also worth noting that Dudamel
had the wind principals — David Buck, flute; Whitney Crockett, bassoon; Carolyn
Hove, English horn; Adriana Ghez, oboe; and Michelle Zukovsky, clarinet — stand
first for solo bows following the performance.


One other takeaway from last night’s performance is how much
Dudamel and the Phil have grown together during the last year. They played this
symphony at about this time in 2011 and then took it on a European tour but
last night’s performance was less edgy and far richer than what we heard last
winter. That kind of artistic growth bodes well for the future.


Dudamel seemed to adopt the positive outlook espoused by
McCoy about the symphony. His tempos were often vigorous, but never rushed
tempos in the performance, which clocked in last night at 87 minutes. Although
I don’t usually compare performance timings, last night’s concert finished a
minute under the recording that Carlo Maria Giulini made with the Chicago
Symphony in 1976. Even that is somewhat misleading, since Dudamel waited about
a minute after the first movement ended for latecomers to be seated and 35 seconds
elapsed from the time the final note “melted into the ethereal blue” (to use
Bruno Walter’s evocative description) and the standing ovation began (it wasn’t
really 35 seconds of silence due to a good deal of coughing, but impressive


The first three movements were quite propulsive at least
compared to Giulini’s recording. The first movement last night was particularly
noteworthy for the burnished sound from the entire brass section. Dudamel paced
the second movement’s Lndler (an
Austrian folk dance) with stately grandeur while the intruding rustic village
dances were more pulsating (Mahler called for them to be “heavy footed”). The
third movement’s outer sections were brisk, while the inner portion — which
looks forward to the final movement Adagio
— was lushly expansive.


In the final movement, with echoes of Symphony No. 3’s
finale, the strings poured out luxurious sound and the interplay between
strings, Crockett and Bain was magical. Incidentally, last night’s final
movement took four minutes longer than did Giulini — something I wouldn’t have
realized without checking the recording timing. The entire 29 minutes seemed to
float by gloriously.


For those in attendance Thursday night and last night, the
final episode of “The Mahler Project” will be the massive Symphony No. 8 at the
Shrine Auditorium, which is about as far from the 9th as you can
get. However, in some ways, I think those who are concluding with the Symphony
No. 9 on Sunday afternoon at Disney Hall may be ending on a more appropriate




McCoy proved to be a nice academic bookend to Stephen
Hefling, who began the preconcert lectures what seems like an eon ago with a
discussion of Symphonty No. 4. Hefling and McCoy were quite different in style
from Gilbert Kaplan and Norman Lebrecht but one of the superb aspects of the
entire project was this quartet of lecturers.

Philadelphia Inquirer Music Critic Peter Dobrin is
reporting that Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Trombonist Nitzan Haroz will
join the L.A. Phil in a similar position in August. Haroz has been with the
Philadelphia Orchestra since 1995. (LINK)

The performances of the 9th are being recorded
for future release. Although last night’s performance had a great deal of
coughing, there were no cell phones that went off as occurred seconds after the
conclusion Thursday night.

Dudamel’s Web site lists the SBSOV beginning the Venezuela
cycle with a performance of Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
on Feb. 8, followed by Symphony No. 3 the next day and Symphony No. 5 on Feb.
10. Interestingly, all of these performances are simply listed as “Caracas,”
with no hall given. The Phil picks up the cycle on Feb. 12 (Symphony No. 1), 13
(No. 4), 14, (No. 6) and 17 (No. 9), all in the Simn Bolivr Hall in Caracas.
The orchestras (and 800+ singers) will combine for Symphony No. 8 on Feb. 18 at
the Teresa Carreo in Caracas — that performance will be telecast in movie
theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada as part of the “LA Phil LIVE” series.
Unless Gustavo’s Web site inadvertently omitted it, Symphony No. 7 won’t be
performed in Caracas.



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

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