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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

Comments () | Archives (6)

This symphony is (non)arguably the greatest one of all times. I'm looking forward to hearing it on Saturday at the Walt Disney hall.

Not my favorite Mahler symphony, but I'll be there Saturday night just the same.

And I love Simon Rattle's take on the two interior movements: II = everything Mahler hated about the country, and III = everything Mahler hated about the city. Looking forward to that.

11 AM Friday morning January 80 degrees impossibly sunny...Mahler 9?? Gotta love the coffee concerts. Dudamel decided to try his hand at this existential masterpiece aged 29, and predictably it was a partial success. The first movement was most successful, good for me as it is probably my favorite symphonic movement of all. Dudamel's easy way with big Romantic gestures -- sweeping masses of strings, splashes of brass and timpani, big climaxes -- was put to the test: these are as big as they come, and he acquitted himself well. There were few distentions of tempo that were noticeably forced, per usual for Gustavo, but such interpretative license really didn't get out of hand till the final Adagio. The inner movements separate an all-time performance from the rest, in my opinion, especially the Rondo-Burleske third movement: tangled, anguished, dizzying, raging against the dying of the light. The climaxes were heart-poundingly bold and visceral (Joseph Pereira again on top form) and Dudamel negotiated the structural complexity and contrapuntal mania of this movement expertly, if in the end it was more straightforward than I would have liked -- we're talking about life & death here! Going backward to the Ländler second movement, I felt Dudamel completely missed the point, giving it the standard, trademark Gustavo (TM) Romantic reading with everything neat & tidy, edges rounded, and sounding just beautiful and so, whereas Mahler composed an utterly unmistakable piece of biting satire and caustic wit. Dudamel tapped into none of it. Finally, 60 minutes or so later we arrived at the Adagio, time to dig in for the final stretch. As with the opening Andante, we were treated to a fulsomeness of gorgeous string playing (Chalifour and Dennis giving remarkable solo spots) and big gestures from our leader. It was beautiful and moving and in the spirit of everything I've heard from the great masters of this work: Walter, Bernstein, (can I say it?) Maderna. However, as Mr. Swed noted, in the final bars Gustavo took matters into his own hands as Executor of his band and plugged the Phil machine back in, extending life to an abnormal length in the last measures. It was unnecessary. The work writes itself in these touching seconds, no need for interpretative excess. All in all, a mixed performance with some wonderful highs and sighs and a few duds (especially the Ländler). But who is expecting Abbado-like mastery in this most challenging of symphonic masterpieces from a 29 year-old? No one should. Not bad for 11 AM.

Thanks again to G.D. I was excited by just reading the review.

I don’t know about “young man’s Mahler”. That sort of comment always sounds a little bit condescending, and Mr. Swed has always been the opposite of the condescending reviewer. Los Angeles used to have a reviewer who specialized in it! I remember when American reviewers used to write about Simon Rattle’s “young man’s Beethoven” as if older and more experienced ears could hear something his young, exuberant ears could not. I don’t buy it.

The young man is up there for a reason. Separate from the marketing machine, the hoopla, and (dare I say it) the iphone app, Dudamel’s mastery and commitment is astonishing. The performance on Saturday night was, to me, the first musical evidence of Dudamel’s “specialness”. He created such intensity, such clarity, and did it in such an “unfussy” way. The commitment from the orchestra was as good as it gets. It was one of those rare occasions where you are truly grateful to be there.

The rub is we, the audience. I don’t envy Deborah Borda her task of keeping Dudamel interested in performing for an audience that arrives late, leaves early, and coughs, splutters, chit-chats, and jangles its bangles through the most meditative and moving music. Other cities don’t have this problem…at least not to the extent that we have it here. The last movement on Saturday was ruined by a loud, rambling 2 minute conversation going on in the terrace, and the insistent coughing. The Verdi Requiem last year received the same treatment.

Perhaps a call should be put in to Birmingham to see how they managed to put this behavior out of business during the Rattle tenure. He wouldn’t put up with it. I subscribed to the last three years of his concerts there, and people simply did not behave in this manner. They don’t in Berlin either.

I'm another who counts Mahler's 9th as one of my favorites. I don't have the depth of experience of either Mr. Sved or Red Gulch, above, but agree that Dudamel's take is one more of excitement than pathos this early in his career. It'll be interesting to compare when he conducts this, say, 30 years from now. 

Interestingly, MTT will conduct this with the SF Symphony later this season. It would be interesting to see if Mr. Sved will attend and compare versions from two highly regarded Mahler specialists at the opposite ends of their careers.


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