REVIEW: Dudamel, L.A. Phil begin Schubert/Mahler series at Disney Hall

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conducting
Walt Disney Concert Hall; Los Angeles
Next performances: May 11, 12 and 13 at 8 p.m.

Last week was quite tough for Los Angeles Philharmonic Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel. For the past several years has watched as his native Venezuela’s government has slowly devolved into chaos. He has refused to become overtly involved, believing that such involvement might jeopardize his country’s El Sistema music program (which is funded in large part by the government) and that he can be more effective making music. That decision has earned him plenty of enmity, particularly from those who oppose the government.

However, on Wednesday Armando Cañizales, a 17-year-old violinist and El Sistema member, was killed during an antigovernment protest and Dudamel felt compelled to act. He issued a statement, “I Raise My Voice,” (LINK) that said, in part, “It is time to listen to the people: Enough is enough. I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people. Times cannot be defined by the blood of our people.”

Perhaps predictably many people on both sides of the debate are angry about this letter, some saying it’s too little, too late, others criticizing the relationship between Dudamel and El Sistema with the government, and some even calling Dudamel complicit in the killings.

Friday night Dudamel returned to his second home and to one of his familes, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for the first of five weeks of concerts that will present two different cycles. According to Mark Swed’s Los Angeles Times REVIEW, “[Dudamel] walked onto the stage with uncharacteristic brusqueness — no smiles” and told the audience he was dedicating the concert to the slain student and all victims of violence. “We play for all our children,” Dudamel concluded, “to build a better future for them with peace and love.”

Last night, his entrance onto the stage was gentler but still without smiles. Why he elected not to repeat the dedication mystifies me a bit — those who attend on Saturday are as much a part of the L.A. Phil family as those who came Friday night. Nonetheless, the evening proved to be excellent music making.

Over the next two weeks Dudamel will lead a cycle of all eight published symphonies of Franz Schubert intermingled with four song cycles written by Gustav Mahler. “This [weekend’s] program,” wrote Linda Shaver-Gleason in her program notes, “features symphonies from a prolific songwriter and songs from a prominent symphonist, two figures on the end of the Romantic era.”

This is a cycle that Dudamel could not have pulled off as well in his early days with the Phil. He would have been too brash, too energetic to let this music unfold on its own terms. Now, like his work with Mozart symphonies, he has become more relaxed and reflective in his music making.

Last night he conducted the first two symphonies from memory, with a light, yet sure touch, using almost none of the dynamic gestures for which is well known. He brought more gravitas to Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, in part because the soloist was mezzo-soprano Michelle deYoung, who sang Mahler’s texts with an opulent Wagnerian tone.

In his preconcert lecture, Professor James William Sobaskie described the concert as having “echoes and resonance,” noting that both composers reached into their past for inspiration but wrote works that pointed to the future.

Schubert composed his first symphony in 1813 at the age of 16, when he was still a student at the Imperial Seminary in Vienna. He began his second symphony the following year. Schubert was living in a city that still reveled in the works of Mozart, who died in 1791, Haydn, who passed away in 1809, and Beethoven, whose Symphony No. 7 premiered in 1813 and No. 8 a year later. Schubert’s first two symphonies heavily reflect the music of Haydn and Mozart.

Yet what a difference in these two works. The first symphony, which opened last night’s program, was scored for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. By the second (which closed the evening) Schubert had added a second flute and two trumpets to the scoring, which made for a richer sound. For both symphonies Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereria played a set of kettledrums more appropriate to the Schubertian sound than the richer drums that were used in the Mahler songs.

Both symphonies begin with a slow introduction but diverge somewhat from there. Dudamel’s pacing was gentle until he reached the Presto finale of the second symphony. The orchestration in both works is a feast for wind instruments and the Phil’s principals were in tip-top form. At the conclusion of the second symphony, Dudamel waded into the orchestra to shake the hand of Associate Principal Oboeist Marion Arthur Kuszyk for her exemplary work.

The Mahler songs proved to be an effective counterpoint to the Schubert, although in all but the final concert of this series they will make for somewhat unbalanced programs. Dudamel used a score for Songs of a Wayfarer but led the four songs for which Mahler wrote from the poetry with elegant confidence.

Part of Sobaskie’s “resonance” description was easy to understand in Songs of a Wayfarer. The melody of the second song became the opening theme of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and traces of the final song also show up in that first symphony.

DeYoung poured out all four songs with easy opulence. Dudamel and the orchestra (considerably larger than for the Schubert symphonies) provided sumptuous accompaniment.

Next week’s programs will pair Schubert’s third and fourth symphonies with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, with baritone Matthias Goerne as soloist. On May 18 and 19, Dudamel will lead Schubert’s fifth and sixth symphonies with Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, with mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča as soloist.

The series concludes on May 20 and 21 with Schubert’s best-known symphonies, Nos. 8 (“Unfinished”) and 9 (“The Great C-Major”), with Garanča soloing in Mahler’s Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn on both concerts.

Information on all of these is at


(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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