Music review: Gustavo Dudamel conducts Mahler's First and Tenth
Gustavo Dudamel and Mahler’s First Symphony have a long relationship.
Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, in what may have been Dudamel’s most stirring and satisfying performance here thus far, it was clear that relationship has reached full maturity. The performance also provided excellent evidence of just how much Dudamel has refashioned the sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the little more than two years since he became its music director.
Dudamel did, after all, conduct Mahler’s First in the fall of 2009 to conclude his debut Disney Hall gala. The huge event attracted international attention, was televised and released on DVD. The excitement of the occasion and the exuberant performance were contagious.
Back then the orchestra, however, was on edge –- not accustomed to the media attention. And Dudamel, who had been conducting the Mahler First since he was 16, was not willing to sacrifice vitality for overly careful ensemble playing. The symphony didn’t entirely hang together. Dudamel cared more about the moment than momentum. The next spring he got beat up for that by several American critics when he took the score on his first national tour with the L.A. Phil.
It was hard to believe just how much has changed in 800 days. Indeed, it was extraordinary how much had changed since last week, when Dudamel opened the Mahler Project with a comparatively unassuming performance of the Fourth Symphony.
The length of the 2009 Mahler First and Thursday’s were almost identical, just under an hour. Though the excitement remained, Thursday’s hour felt far more expansive and much fuller, packed with more radical incident and atmospheric extremes. Remarkably, this time Mahler was tighter, yet actually less tamed.
Confidence obviously had something to do with all this, when you combine Dudamel’s long association with the symphony and his already 14 performances of it with the L.A. Phil. Dudamel is also now in a position to take advantage of the changes he has made to the heft of the orchestra’s sound, having thickened the string textures, while emboldening the winds and indefatigably egging on the brass and percussion.
The quiet nature-stirring-to-life opening of the first movement was mysterious and evocative, yet not, as sometimes Dudamel is when mysterious and evocative, self-conscious.
Mahler is in such details, and that is going to be a huge challenge for Dudamel as he tries to keep them all straight in the remaining seven massive symphonies that will be performed over the next two weeks. But here he brought out endless little expressive touches, allied with the grand gestures, levitating lyricism and that sense of celebratory drive on which Dudamel thrives.
The bizarre third movement was the most changed from two seasons ago. An eccentric funeral march based on “Frére Jacques” is interrupted by an outlandish klezmer band. At the gala Dudamel was understated; Thursday, he was not. I’ve never before heard a non-Jewish conductor get the effect the way Dudamel now does. Eastern European brass and Latin brass have closer ties than you might think.
What exactly makes a Mahler performance work can be harder to analyze than to recognize. Every conductor must find his or her individual way inside individualist music. Leonard Bernstein’s early performances of the First and Fourth were problematic, years later they were transcendent. Dudamel already has worked his way up the transcendent ladder with the First.
The Tenth, on the other hand, may take him time to fully absorb. His idea was to show just how much Mahler grew from the unbelievably confident 28-year-old of the First to the time of the Tenth, which he was working on when he died at 50 in 1911. Mahler finished the opening Adagio, which achieves many things. It is both an arrestingly visionary look at where music was heading in the 20th century with Schoenberg and Berg and just as arresting a look back at where music had been and what life meant to the dying Mahler.
For his first time conducting the Tenth’s Adagio, Dudamel took few chances, letting weighty anguish speak for itself, particularly in his enforcement of its ripe, robust and richly textured string playing. He was on the slow side by the clock but he didn’t make the 29 minutes feel slow (Pierre Boulez was five minutes faster when he conducted an incandescent performance of the Adagio at Disney in 2003).
I wonder, though, whether taking a flashback approach and performing the Adagio before intermission rather than after might have been more liberating. The triumph of the First perhaps forced Dudamel into too much grandeur to avoid a feeling of anti-climax. And Mahler authority Gilbert Kaplan was on hand to take care of the composer’s career trajectory in a compelling illustrated lecture beforehand.
But the lesson from a great First Symphony performance was clear. Don’t underestimate Dudamel.
-- Mark Swed
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday (Casual Friday excludes the Adagio from Mahler's 10th Symphony) and Saturday; $71 to $183. (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.
Photo: Gustavo Dudamel levitates conducting Mahler's First Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.