OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Crazy 8th concludes the 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. 8

Saturday, February 4, 2012 Shrine Auditorium

Next performance:

Today at 2 p.m. Walt Disney Concert Hall

Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Information: www.laphil.com



The numbers for last night’s performance of Mahler’s
Symphony No. 8 at the Shrine Auditorium were impressive: 190 instrumentalists
(91 from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 99 from the Simn Bolivr Symphony
Orchestra of Venezuela), 813 singers from 16 local choruses (according to a
fact-filled article by David Ng in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times — LINK), eight soloists … and, oh yes, one
31-year-old maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, who was conducting the piece for the
first time.


It’s one of the few times that a performance has achieved
the work’s subtitle “Symphony of a Thousand” (a name attached not by Mahler,
who disapproved of it, but Emil Gutmann, promoter of the inaugural performance
on Sept. 12, 1910 in Munich).


However, in this case, the numbers don’t really begin to
describe what occurred last night. Picture in your mind the auditorium’s
mammoth stage: more than 100 feet wide by nearly 70 feet deep, large enough
that the Los Angeles Lakers and USC Trojans each have played basketball games
on it.


Yet it wasn’t big enough for last night’s performance of
Mahler’s 8th. To shoehorn in 1,000 musicians, the Phil had to build
an extension that doubled the depth of the stage (and reduced the seating
capacity by about 800 seats, to 5,400). The Phil also constructed 18 risers to
accommodate the choristers, who took 10 minutes to get on stage. Gigantic video
screens on the left and right sides of the hall provided images a la Hollywood
Bowl and projected translations of the text.


It all looked very impressive and there were many
spine-tingling moments, but at the conclusion I came away with the feeling that
less would have been more.


Aside from the massive expense involved, shifting Mahler’s 8th
from Walt Disney Concert Hall (where the other 16 concerts in the Phil’s
“Mahler Project” had been played) to the Shrine meant some serious acoustic
compromises. Although the combined orchestra was heard clearly, the ensembles
often swamped the soloists and the 100+ members of the Los Angeles Children’s
Chorus and National Children’s Chorus in the cavernous Shrine space.


Having Dudamel nearly 100 feet away from the back row of
choristers and 50 feet away from the farthest reaches of the instrumentalists
presented some major coordination issues; what’s amazing is how cohesive the
performance sounded most of the time, although were some shaky moments.
Finally, although the electronic organ imported for the performance wasn’t as
weak as the one at Hollywood Bowl when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler’s 8th
a few years ago, it paled in comparison to the sound that would been produced
by the Disney Hall pipe organ.


Dudamel, who conducted with a score for the first time in
“The Mahler Project,” relied on many of the same propensities in this performance
(which clocked in at about 85 minutes) as he has shown in the other 8.5
symphonies of the three-week-long survey. He slowed tempos in the delicate
moments or when the soloists were singing and put his foot on the pedal as he
propelled the powerful moments forward. Soft passages (especially at the
beginning of the second movement) were ethereal; loud moments hurled


The opening movement (which is based on the medieval Latin
hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus), opened
and closed with massive walls of sound; the ending was augmented by a large
brass choir perched in one of the old opera boxes to the far left of the stage.
One advantage to a 100-foot-wide stage is that, with the women at the outside
of the risers, the ensemble really sounded like the double chorus that Mahler
wrote for. Considering the difficulty of merging 800+ singers from 16 choruses
(comprised of professional and amateur singers), the ensemble was remarkably
precise for most of the performance. When they were heard, the seven soloists
were uniformly strong (the eighth, soprano Kiera Duffy, doesn’t appear in the
first movement).


The second movement, Mahler’s conception of the final scene
from Goethe’s Faust, Part II, opens
with orchestra alone and Dudamel and the instrumentalists captured the
mysterious nature of Mahler’s writing effectively. The only shaky choral
moments came during their soft entrance (for which the singers were seated),
but they rallied smartly as the movement progressed. With a score in front of
him, the need to be ultra-precise with his stick movements, and the worry about
keeping everything together, Dudamel looked less relaxed than he has during the
rest of the “Project” concerts but, with the offstage brass choir again
punctuating the final measures, the movement and the symphony ended in a blaze
of glory, after which The Dude looked as if he was ready to collapse from


One supposes that concluding “The Mahler Project” in this
grandiose manner was a given in a town where Hollywood reigns but, as we
learned last night, more is not always more. Although last night’s performance was a valiant effort by all concerned, let’s hope that is was also a “one-off” performance (well, “two-off,” since it’s being played again on Feb. 18 in Caracas) and that when Dudamel decides to reprise Mahler’s 8th in the future, he will use a single orchestra and 250 or so choristers in Disney Hall. “Symphony of 350” may not have
the same catchy ring for marketing purposes, but it makes far more musical




For the record: the soloists were Manuela Uhl,
Julianna Di
, and Kiera Duffy, sopranos;
 Anna Larsson
and Charlotte
, altos; Burkhard
, tenor; Brian
, baritone; and Alexander
, bass. Fritz was ill but overcame it to sing

The choruses were:

Los Angeles
Master Chorale
, Grant Gershon, music director;

Los Angeles
Children’s Chorus
, Anne Tomlinson, artistic director;

, John Sutton, artistic director and conductor;

, John Alexander, artistic director;

Gay Men’s
Chorus of Los Angeles
, E. Jason Armstrong, artistic director;

Angel City Chorale, Sue
Fink, artistic director;

Choir of All
Saints Church, Pasadena
, James Walker, director of music;

Chorus of the
Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles
, Charles Dickerson,
music director and conductor;

Los Angeles
Chamber Choir
, Chung Uk Lee, music director;

Los Robles
Master Chorale
, Lesley Leighton, artistic director;

Children’s Chorus
, Luke McEndarfer, artistic director;

Pasadena Pro
, Stephen Grimm, director;

Master Chorale
, Jeffrey Bernstein, artistic director;

Chamber Singers – Los Angeles
, Anthony Angelo Francisco, artistic
director and conductor;

Arts Academy
, Ross Chitwood/Will Johnson, artistic directors;

Vox Femina
Los Angeles
, Iris S. Levine, artistic director.

Gershon served
as overall chorus master.

Some of the choristers wore choir robes, colorful dresses
and other uniforms, which helped break up the “concert black” wall of the other
singing groups.

The evening’s principals were split between the LAPO and
SBSOV. The organist, Pablo Castellanos, was from the Bolivars; Joanne Pearce
Martin, the Phil’s keyboard principal, played piano.

Following this afternoon’s final performance of Symphony
No. 9, everyone decamps to Caracas, Venezuela. 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
Caracas singers (one report has placed the total number at 1,600) will combine
for Symphony No. 8 on Feb. 18 at Caracas’ Teresa Carreo — 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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