By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Tuesday, January 24 13, 2012 Walt Disney Concert Hall
Mahler: Symphony No. 5; Dudamel and SBSOV
Tomorrow at 8 p.m.
When I’m wearing my music critic hat, I try hard not to
compare performances. Some critics do — it’s just not my style. Inevitably, of
course, what I’ve heard in the past will influence my feelings about how a
piece should sound but when I’m reviewing a concert, I try not to think, “Gosh,
that doesn’t sound like how Giulini, Salonen, Bernstein, etc. conducted it.” Instead, I try to let each performance stand on its own.
However, there are a couple of works for which it’s very
hard to block out memory and one of those is Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. One of my
most indelible musical experiences in nearly 60 years of attending concerts was
the first time I heard Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic play
Mahler’s third in the late 1970s. For many years, I’ve said that if I had one
piece to listen to while I am dying, it would be Mehta and the Phil playing the
finale of this monumental work.
Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Simn Bolivr
Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela came very, very close to matching that standard.
Gustavo Dudamel equaled it.
Symphony No. 3 is Mahler’s longest work: 104 minutes last
night — it seemed shorter — in six movements. Mahler originally planned seven
movements but later decided that enough was enough (even for him), and the
seventh section became the finale of Symphony No. 4, instead.
Nonetheless, No. 3 is an incredibly complex work. In his
program note, John Mangum quoted Mahler writing, “It’s not really appropriate
to call it a symphony, for it doesn’t stick to the traditional form at all. But
‘symphony’ means to me building a world with all the resources of the available
techniques.” Later he said to Jean Sibelius, “The symphony must be like the
world. It must embrace everything.” Mahler’s early descriptive titles (which he
later discarded) displayed the breadth of his thinking: Summer marches in, What the flowers in the meadow tell me, etc.
Mahler scored the symphony for an oversized orchestra and
the Bolivars surely exceeded those expectations. Mark Swed, in his Los Angeles Times review, said the
ensemble numbered about 175 on Sunday and it didn’t look any smaller last
night. There were also 39 women of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, 40 members
of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotjn … and
the camera operator focusing on Dudamel for the off-stage flgelhorn player in
the third movement ((that must be quite a seat from a sound point of view).
As he has done throughout “The Mahler Project,” Dudamel
conducted without a score — as noted in my review of Sunday’s performance of
Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony,
that’s not unprecedented but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. He continues
to be a joy to watch, his exuberant face and expressive gestures communicating
volumes to his musicians. In nearly every concert, Dudamel always appears to be
throughly enjoying himself and last night was no exception, even though he
seemed to be suffering from a head cold. Any performance of Symphony No. 3 is
an endurance contest for all concerned: instrumentalists, singers, conductor
and audience. Last night was no different but was, nonetheless, spellbinding.
In conducting Symphonies 4, 1, 2 and the Adagio from No. 10, Dudamel has taken
quite broad tempos most of the time, but last night was different, at least in
the first two movements. The 96 string players (that number would equal the
entire L.A. Phil for most of its concerts) were remarkably precise in the
opening movement (which lasted 33 minutes last night) and the entire brass
section was at its burnished best. The second movement was a model of melding
propulsion and lyricism, while the third movement was the only time when tempos
seemed to flag a bit. However, the flugelhorn solo, paired with the first
trumpeter, was exemplary, a couple of bobbles notwithstanding (the Bolivars
don’t provide principal lists so I can’t tell you who each was).
Stotijn sang the fourth-movement text, O Mensch! Gib Acht! (O Man, Take Heed), poignantly, and her fifth
movement, Armer Kinder Bettlerlied (Poor
Children’s Begging Song), with rich ardor. The Master Chorale women added
lustrous accompaniment and the L.A. Children’s Chorus bimm-bammed angelically.
All of that is prologue — in this case, 64 minutes worth —
for the final movement, which Mahler originally called What love tells me and eventually marked Langsam: Ruhevoli; Empfunden (Slow: Peaceful; With feeling). Among
the problems facing the conductor in this 40-minute finale are investing the
movement with the proper gravitas without letting it sink beneath its own
weight. Moreover, there are three climaxes to the movement, so the conductor
has to manage all of that and leave the most glorious measures to the end.
Dudamel let it all unfold unhurriedly. If the orchestra
seemed midway through the movement to be wearying a tad, it rallied beautifully
to finish on a majestically glorious fortissimo, those final timpani shots
ringing out like rifle shots, and Dudamel concluded the work not with a furious
cutoff but with a graceful Mehta-like upsweep.
Now all they have to do in less than 48 hours is come back
and play Symphony No. 5, which — at about 75 minutes or so — will seem like an
overture. I don’t know how you celebrate your birthdays but Dudamel will mark
his (No. 31) by conducting Mahler’s fifth.
An overflow crowd showed up for Norman Lebrecht’s
preconcert lecture; if you’re planning on coming to Thursday’s lecture (which,
at this point, is scheduled for BP Hall, not the main auditorium), arrive
early. Lebrecht’s concept of Mahler in this symphony as a pleader for social
justice was provocative, if a bit unwieldy in its presentation.
Mahler called for a long pause after the first movement;
Dudamel took the opportunity to duck offstage for a few seconds.
The weekend’s concerts bring back the L.A. Phil playing
Symphony No. 6.
(c) Copyright 2012, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.