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Music review: Gustavo Dudamel takes on Mahler's Ninth Symphony

January 14, 2011 |  1:10 pm

Dudamel On Jan 16, 1961, most (perhaps all) of the players of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, called the Columbia Symphony for contractual reasons, gathered at the American Legion Hall in Hollywood to begin rehearsals for the first modern recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The conductor was 84-year-old Bruno Walter, who had been Mahler’s assistant and who gave the premiere of the composer’s last completed symphony in 1912, the year after Mahler’s death. The recording became, according to the German authority who wrote the notes for a 1994 reissue, “a foundation-stone of the Mahler revival.”

The L.A. Phil will mark the 50th anniversary of the laying of that foundation-stone Sunday by packing for its first European tour under Gustavo Dudamel. In the musicians' luggage will be Mahler's Ninth, which Dudamel conducted for the first time Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was a powerful performance and the most audacious challenge yet for a fearless young conductor in his first year and a half as music director of the orchestra.

The weight of this Ninth is heavy. The symphony has the reputation of  being a profound leave-taking by a death-haunted genius who sought the meaning of life in everything he wrote. I know of no music more tender nor more disturbingly distraught in the symphonic literature. The work, which lasted nearly 90 minutes in Dudamel’s broad reading, has been interpreted not only as a farewell to life but also to a European music and culture on the cusp of radical change.

It is also a symphony that has had a special relationship with the L.A. Phil. The first live performance was a great one in 1969 by John Barbirolli. An otherworldly 1975 Ninth from Carlo Maria Giulini convinced the orchestra to entice the Italian conductor into becoming its music director three years later. The symphony is a specialty of former music directors Zubin Mehta and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

None of this, of course, seemed to intimidate Dudamel. He is a Mahlerian. He began his music directorship last year with the First Symphony. He has been leading a Mahler cycle in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he is also a music director. And before coming to Los Angeles, he promised a Mahler cycle with his new orchestra as one of his first major projects, so stay tuned.

Still, it is a huge jump from the First to the Ninth, and Dudamel will be growing into this important symphony for many years. He gravitated Thursday toward its extremes. He brought the affection of a gentle lover, full of soft caresses, to the theme that opens the first movement. But he was also irrepressible. Mahler was never more unsettled than in this movement, one second in the thrall of everything beautiful in life and nature, the next in utter torment. Dudamel took it all at face value. The playing was brightly colored and strong. The character was often exaggerated and the climaxes coming close to going over the top.

A young man’s Mahler Ninth is not, though, an anomaly. Mahler may have been suffering from a fatal heart disease when he completed the symphony, but he wasn’t finished. He nearly completed a massive 10th symphony as well. Walter, by the way, was but five years older than Dudamel (who turns 30 this month) when he conducted the premiere of the Ninth.

The two middle movements gave Dudamel plenty of opportunity for exuberance. In the Scherzo and the Rondo-Burlesque, rustic dances turn grotesque and nostalgia cuts through with macabre, wrenching emotion. Simple things become complex, and moments of shocking contrapuntal and harmonic complexity startlingly open up into visions of heavenly purity. In his element, Dudamel took charge with his characteristic gusto and astonishing control (he conducted without a score).

For the slow, wrought, ethereal Finale, Dudamel was slow, wrought and ethereal. And sincere.  Mahler was a man of overpowering doubt, and the last movement is the hardest-won resignation in all of music. Dudamel, however, is a conductor of certainty, and for him acceptance of the inevitable was audible from the start. The strings didn’t need to dig in extra hard. There were no further questions to be asked.

The final fading out was very slow and superbly controlled, yet not teary. Dudamel stood for a full minute in meditative silence at the end. Time, though, did not stop. It did not need to. For Dudamel at this stage in his remarkable career, Mahler is about life and breath, not life and death.

This may not be all that the Ninth has to offer, but I would like to think that Mahler would have been much moved by his last symphony being heard as life-giving in the New World 100 years after his death. Soon we’ll find out what Vienna thinks, when Dudamel ends his L.A. Phil tour on Feb. 5 with it in Mahler-land.

-- Mark Swed

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. 8 p.m. Saturday. $44-$167. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photo: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's Night. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

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